Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Bad Fiction and Good Steak

We had play practice this evening, and every time I spoke I couldn’t help but think that my play feels like a glorified soap opera. Or worse. Just a regular soap opera. I get the impression that while the thing might not suck completely, there are large portions of it which indeed blow chunks. But I felt the same way about the last play during rehearsals and people ended up liking it. At least that’s what they told me. So who knows? Maybe I’m just hypercritical.

Afterwards, several of us retired to a local pub and eatery to consume mass quantities and discuss whatever happened across our minds. Abbie was there, along with Silas and Ben. The Poindexters (who did an amazing job performing a Sara Groves song at this past weekend’s Grove, by the way. You should check it out as soon as Chad gets off his lazy ass and posts the show).

We had a halfway decent discussion going this evening. For a while, we discussed postmodernism in literature as described by T.S. Elliot in his essays on literary criticism. I’d like to be smart and claim that it was I who brought this to everyone’s attention, but I can’t. Tim’s the smart guy of the group, and he deserves all the credit.

Shortly thereafter, Tim brought up a recent story about an Austrian man who was convicted of denying the holocaust and sentenced to three years in prison (I think). He asked us what we thought of this conviction, and each of us had our say. I think it is definitely a tough line to paint. One the one hand, you have people screaming about the necessity of free speech, regardless of how stupid that speech is. They say the government has no right to infringe upon people’s right to speak their minds. But on the other hand, you have those who claim that potentially damaging speech can and should be infringed. These are the people who would be quick to point out the “screaming fire in a movie theater” example of where free speech actually causes harm. If you go too far and limit speech the point where nothing offensive escapes, you become a politically correct totalitarian state. But if you go the other way and allow anything and everything in all circumstances, you inherently infringe upon a great deal of other rights, qhich brings in the question of how important free speech is relative to other rights such as equality, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to life. I said that when questioning how to limit speech, you have to look at a person’s intent. If somebody questions the holocaust, are they doing so to make an academic point in pursuit of truth or do they merely hate Jews? If it is the former, then I say allow it. The latter, however, should result in prosecution. Yes, intent is a difficult thing to prove, but I think that if we plan tot take error into account with this, I would rather err on the side of the individual since it’s a government that gets away with something can cause a lot more damage than an individual. Plus, I’m an anti-authoritarian hippie. Like I said, it’s a fine line and if there is a definitive way in which a statute of this ilk can work, I don’t see it. I think the points beyond which I have already described lie in what I like to call “lawyerly territory,” and by that I mean they rely heavily upon what is legal versus what is right or true. Most people, including me, don’t care about law to that extent. Tim, however, plans to go to law school. So this is probably why he asked the question.

Next, Ben brought up a movie he saw not too long ago in which the main characters invited different people over to their houses for a night of drink and discussion. If they disagreed with the person’s philosophy, they killed them. Abbie mentioned that it sounded a lot like Arsenic and Old Lace to her, and I had to agree. Ben continued, asking what was apparently one of the questions from the movie.

If you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was still just a failed artist in Vienna, would you? Would you try to convince him to change his ways? Or would you merely leave him alone (and perhaps attempt to purchase an early Picasso painting for the return trip). This sparked the only real “debate” of the evening in which Abbie, Tim, Silas, Brit, and I all agreed that we would not kill Hitler and Ben said that he would.

Tim went off on the philosophy of history he discovered in War and Peace which states (more eloquently than me) that history is not a series of events and people driven by singular, important men but rather men driven by events and people. He said that the thrust of the novel (one of them, anyway) was that Napoleon was not actually a necessary character in the Napoleonic wars. He said that large events such as this, or World War II for example, would have taken place regardless of those who appear to have steered them. The reason, he said, was that man’s free will wasn’t as all-encompassing as many of us thought. It is hindered by our nature and our character, and our ability to change vents, much like the case with Napoleon, is limited as well. If not Napoleon, then somebody else (perhaps a descendant of Robespierre). If not Stalin, then perhaps Trotsky or Kamenev. If not Hitler, perhaps Goebbels. Or worse, perhaps the growing anti-Semitism in Germany spreads to all of Europe, the United States doesn’t pull itself out of depression and in 1960 we fall to a European Union that actually “succeeds” where Hitler failed.

The possibilities are endless. It reminded me of a movie I saw not too long ago, The Fog of War. In it, Robert Macnamara, the former Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, spoke about those who question whether we were right to firebomb Dresden or drop the bomb on Hiroshima. He speaks about those who say we never should have been involved in Viet Nam. He argued that the motivations and actions the underlie war, and by extension all of history, are so muddled and confused that it makes little sense to claim that we were always in the right and They were always in the wrong. We were both right and we were both wrong. He wasn’t arguing for postmodernity either. He was saying that truth lies under a fog, and we have no way of knowing the reality of our own history due to personal opinions, political agendas, obfuscation, and large gaps in information and that questions of that sort are useless. He said all that really mattered was our intent, whether we acted in line with our core philosophy, whether we were prepared to accept the consequences of those actions no matter what they are, and whether we were humble enough to learn from our mistakes.

This thought reminded me of the line from that Rage Against the Machine song (which I have now forgotten) which states, “Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now controls the past.” The questions we should be asking are not whether we should or should not have done a particular thing. We cannot know what all went into making a particular decision or action. What we should ask is how we deal with the problems we currently face and are those decisions just.

So I said I would not have killed Hitler. Because my mind was blinded by the fog of time and of war and I had no way of knowing whether the outcome would have been better or worse. The outcome as it stands was good, even though millions had to suffer, and the world is a halfway decent place because of it. That is not to say that I agree with Hitler’s actions. It is to say that even clearsightedness in the past does not guarantee perfect vision for the future consequences. And what matters most is the morality of the present situation. To do otherwise would be to advocate relativistic postmodernism and I don’t want to do that.

Ironically enough, I am going to see Kurt Vonnegut, an alleged hero of postmodernism, speak tomorrow at the large state university of Ohio where I work. I say alleged, because I don’t believe he actually agrees with that interpretation of his thought. How anybody can read Mother Night or his essays in defense of socialism and believe that his approach to life is in any way relativistic is beyond me. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that, even though he is an avowed atheist and secular humanist, we will see him in heaven when all is said and done. If for no other reason than, after Carl Sagan's death, he stood in front of the American Humanist society and, in a deeply somber voice said, "Well ... Carl's in Heaven now."

But that is another discussion. And so on.

3 comments:

Junior said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Junior said...

I believe, as has been hypothesized by many in the realm of physics, that time travel to the past is not possible. For by changing the position of even one raindrop you could well destroy all of humanity. If you were able to destroy all of humanity you would have killed yourself or made your present existence cease to be. Thereby making it impossible for you to go back in time to kill yourself. Viewing history however, may be a possibility, but the Hisenburg? Principle states that the simple act of observing a phenomena can change the outcome of the phenomena. Therefore, even viewing the past is probably best left to science fiction. I admire the conversation and each of your respective decisions to kill Hitler or not, but I don't believe it is or will ever be possible to find out.
Making the whole conversation kind of moot. (I should get bonus points for
the use of the word "moot" in a sentence.) On the other hand what if
killing him wasn't the proper prescription for the problem. What if
instead you could have given him his own art show? What if critics would
have said he had serious potential and a great future as an artist? Just a
thought.

The Sasquatch said...

leave it to my roomate to pretend that he knows something!

The point of the conversation was not to discuss the possibility of time travel. The point of the conversation was to investigate our true understanding of morality in the face of relativism. If the heisenburg uncertainty principle bothers you, lets say that we have the ability to send information back in time. Information is really just an idea, not a physical encapsulation of mass, so there would be no cataclysmic destruction of the unvierse. Let's say we could inform our forefathers of the impending badness of Hitler. Would it be moral to kill him ahead of time and avoid his evilness or would our forefather's be taking part in evil by condemning a man who, at that point in time, had commited no such thing? I may not have been clear in my post, but my reason for not killing Hitler in teh aforementioned scenario is that it would have been an immoral act. We are incapable of seeing time as God does, from the eternal perspective, and thus we are unjustified in making that kind of decision.

Thank you for repeating this sentiment with your statements about giving Hitler an outlet for his artistic "abilities." It shows again that our minds are blinded by the fog of time and history, and that we are incapable of understaning morality from that perspective.

Regardless, it was a hypothetical question