Overweening Generalist

Thursday, July 28, 2016

On Cruelty

One of my favorite academic philosophers is Richard Rorty, who died in 2007. As I read him, he's a sort of radical small "d" democrat who seemed a lot like some of my favorite anarchist characters of personal acquaintance, but Rorty called himself a "bourgeois liberal." His essay on Orwell in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity was marvelous in fleshing out what he thought was the number one value among liberals: cruelty is the worst thing we can do. He was heavily influenced by Judith Shklar in this.

                                                        philosopher Judith Shklar

I recently re-read a bunch of Rorty (and the Shklar essay I linked to above, which I highly recommend) and, while I think we make up our own hierarchy of values and they are not dictated to us from some transcendent being, I subscribe to Shklar's idea. (I wonder about more esoteric readings of Machiavelli, but that's for some other blogspew.) I've been thinking and worrying this topic of treating others cruelly quite a lot lately, for reasons most of you may guess.

In delving into the library of the history of cruelty, I can't help but be cheered by some substantial gains over the centuries. Then again, I'm reminded we have a long way to go. Just today I read THIS.

The human running on the Republican ticket looks at this information and thinks - I'm guessing - "I can be more cruel than that." I have good reason to think the human on the Democratic side knows about this stuff, pretends to not know, and would privately give her assent to its continual practice.

In reading on the history of cruelty: my gawd! There's just so goddamned much, and I have (presumably) finite minutes left before I shuffle off my mortal coil so why don't I do something - anything - less depressing? I guess I get obsessed by certain ideas, even if some of them activate neural circuitry that seems to take a metaphorical machete to anything close to "euphoria."

Montaigne's (d.1592) essay, "Of Cruelty" shows him at his most proto-Modern Humanist. Get a load of this passage:

I do not lament the dead, and should envy them rather; but I very much lament the dying. The savages do not so much offend me, in roasting and eating the bodies of the dead, as they do who torment and persecute the living. Nay, I cannot look so much as upon the ordinary executions of justice, how reasonable soever, with a steady eye. Some one having to give testimony of Julius Caesar's clemency: "he was," says he, "mild in his revenges. Having compelled the pirates to yield by whom he had before been taken prisoner and put to ransom; forasmuch as he had threatened them with the cross, he indeed condemned them to it, but it was after they had first been strangled. He punished his secretary Philemon, who had attempted to poison him, with no greater severity than mere death." Without naming that Latin author, [I tracked it to Suetonius, in my Robert Graves translation of The Twelve Caesars, chapter on Julius, section 74. - OG] who thus dares to allege as a  testimony of mercy the killing only of those by whom we have been offended, it is easy to guess that he was struck with the horrid and inhuman examples of cruelty practices by the Roman tyrants.

I'll say it's "easy to guess," aye. Yea, ya gotta wonder about Suetonius ("mild in his revenges"?), but then I guess he'd seen quite enough. And, you know, something very much on the cruelty level as strangling pirates before nailing 'em to a cross as "merciful" has probably happened somewhere on our planet in the last year, but who knows? CIA torturers? Some Third World dictator (backed by the CIA?); who knows whiskey tango foxtrot goes on in No. Korea...Vladimir Putin, like his presumed ally and/or dupe Trump, merely has journalists killed. It's safe to say Suetonius would consider it almost "right neighborly" to kill a journalist by bashing his head in with a hammer, using contract killers, etc.

                                        Russia's Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist
                                                      likened to Unistat's
                                        investigative journalist Seymour Hersh

It may not be about making Russia or Unistat "great again" but you can be damned sure a lot of journalists will not look too closely at what might bring on bodily troubles for themselves, or - as Ari Fleischer said after 9/11 in response to a quote from comedian Bill Maher - that it's "a reminder to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do...." (See 98% of the way down on that transcript.)

As far as I know, Maher has not been strangled or nailed to a cross: Now that's progress!

(So far...)

Russian Journalist Murdered: Is Russia's Press Freedom Dead?

                                           искусство Бобом Кемпбелл


Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. Maher has commented that he seems like the only person who got fired over 9/11. I find it interesting how many people I hear talking about the election. At McDonald's this morning I overheard three conversations, all about the election. This does not match my usual experience here in California (although it does match my experience when visiting Washington, D. C.).

I find myself contemplating smaller scale cruelty in my day to day experience, wondering how to cope with it.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've been thinking about cruelty lately, too, after recently finishing a book about World War 2, "The Storm of War" by Andrew Roberts. In the back of the book, it quotes a letter Adolf Hitler wrote, which is signed off, "Kind regards, Adolf Hitler." Don't you love it? "Kind regards, Adolf." "Kind regards, Stalin." "Kind regards, Attila the Hun."

michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael said...

@Eric- thanks for mentioning cruelty on the smaller scale.

I didn't address this, but I guess I'm sort of obsessed with it, increasingly mindful. Because here's a level in which we seem to have much more agency. And yet: certain outcomes in my experience point to much deeper problems, and I see the macrocosm in the micro.

Kind regards,
Vlad the Impaler

@ Tom - "Don't you love it?" Aye, this seems to get near the heart of the matter: there's quite a lot of literature on the higher-up Nazis, enacting a genocide 9-5, going home and playing with their kids, laughing, listening to Beethoven and reading Goethe, etc.

Live with this?

warmest regards,
Dr. Franz Six

hilaryous said...

How can we expect less cruelty when so many still believe in a doctrine of cruelty? The Bible is full of it. It is like the user guide for cruel torture and I wonder how many got the ideas from it to perform unnecessary acts of cruelty throughout history. Maybe they thought, just because it was mentioned in the Bible, it was permitted? Okay, not everything seems cruel in the Bible; but why is there cruelty at all in such a sacred book?

Almost every speech at the Republican and Democratic convention ended with "God bless you; God bless US." No, thank you! What if I want to be blessed by the Beatles?

What ever happened to the separation of church and state? How come no one quotes Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, the principal drafter of the US Bill of Rights, who often wrote of "total separation of the church from the state" ? (That is the wall to be built !!!) (Sorry, if I sound antediluvian.)

Yet another misguided tour: Love Thy Neighbour? No, Thanks! What if my neighbour is Donald Trump? Or Dick Cheney? Or a serial killer, or a terrorist armed with automatic assault weapons and making explosives in his/her basement? Or someone who works for Wall Street and rips off Americans daily? Your neighbour?

Although controversial, if Trump is religious or not, he appears as a perfect match in hell. More waterboarding and beyond! Viva cruelty! Coupled with the authoritarian strict father model, who hates, threatens and punishes. The self-proclaimed savior who wants to be my voice? No, thanks!