Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Meaning of Life

The other day I was struck by the notion that I should blog on the meaning of life. Exactly why I am not sure since I usually don't think about it unless forced. The reason for that is probably that what I hear from others is some jazzed up religious nonsense. I suppose the fact that I am having a hip replacement surgery on Super Tuesday might have been the reason. How do you avoid thinking about death when you go into surgery? And contemplating one's death morphs quite naturally into a consideration of what life is about.

The question, "What is the meaning of life?" is not normally answered in empirical terms. The same is true of the question, "What is the meaning of death?" I Googled the phrase "the meaning of death" and got Death is the irredeemable loss of consciousness. This is an empirical fact but is not the sort of answer we are looking for. A site interested in the scientific and philosophic understandings of the meaning of death offered
-Death is an enfeebled form of life
-Death is a continuation of life
-Death is perpetual development
-Death is waiting
I confess that I don't have a clue what any of these things mean.

One thing you do not find in discussions of the meaning of life or death on the internet is an explicit characterization of what the writers mean by "meaning." This is an important omission. If you have read my blog, The Meaning of Meaning, you know that the word "meaning" has a number of senses (i. e. meanings). The one of interest to us here is "significance." When you ask "What is the significance of life?" and "What is the significance of death?" you will, I think, be lead to think about different things than if you think about the meanings of life and death and your thinking will, I believe, be a bit more productive.

When I used Ask.com to search for entries matching the search expression "meaning of life," I got a book (What Its All About?, the title of which is ungrammatical for there is no way that a construction like that can be interpreted as a question. Not surprisingly, this book takes up religious topics. There are explicitly religious urls (Meaning of Life Ministry) and (Life's Greatest Question?), which is also ungrammatical unless the author means to question whether or not some unidentified other question is the greatest question. The third result (Soon you will understand .... the meaning of Life) is sort of fun. It gives a "divine recollection" Talmudic approach. It starts off saying
The Talmud teaches:
Just before a baby is born,
an angel shows it everything there is to know
and learn on Earth.
Then at the moment of birth,
the angel touches the infant’s upper lip,
and the child forgets everything.
We spend the rest of our lives
remembering what the angel showed us.
Plato famously took the view that acquiring knowledge consisted of Divine Recollection or Illumination.

Religious views of the meaning or significance of life are just too easy for they are necessarily supernatural in nature and no one can say anything supernatural that can be proved. However there is another approach to the question of what life means (what is the significance of life) that is empirical and rings true to me. My last philosophy paper at Rice University was on Martin Heidegger's concept that humans (Dasein) are a throwness (into being) toward death (Geworfenheit zum Tod). I struggled with this paper to the point that I called the professor and said I was totally stuck and he said to just cut and paste what I had typed and turn that in. Everything would be fine he intimated. Instead, I had an epiphany as to what Heidegger meant and knocked out 12 pages, wadding up just one (which is what I did when I was blocked or stuck) in the process. There were times I could fill a room with wadded up paper.

The thesis that man is a throwness into being toward death needs no sophisticated exegesis. We normally have no recollection of our earliest years. At some point we come to be aware of ourselves. I don't remember that event and I doubt that you do either. We just find ourselves here. And we find that we and all that is around us is in motion. We grow. We do things. We are going forward as beings in the world. At some point we realize that where we are headed is toward death.

When we are young, the fact that we are headed toward death usually has no significance. However, as we mature (I think some never do mature) we come to realize that our time on earth is limited. If we are women we know we have this biological clock that ticks off the hours until one cannot conceive children. But any of us who are trying to accomplish something are to some degree I think, hurried up in this process by the certain knowledge we will die.

I was sure that I would never make it to retirement since I was a boozer and smoker and was overweight. I quit the first two -- easily as it turns out -- and from time to time would reduce my weight. I am now 69 and know that my time is limited. Now that I have a granddaughter I seem to be focused on maximizing my time with her. I love sports, especially Ohio State sports, and there are championships to be won and I want to experience as many of those as I can. I want to see as many great movies as I can. I want to be with my wife and daughter and son-in-law as long as possible. And I want to see a Democratic President and Congress straightening out the colossal disaster that has been visited on the country by Bushilla. Something impelled me to blog. It was guilt I think. It was due to my realization that I was wasting my time, the limited time I have before I die.

The unassailable fact is that we are here without having asked to be here and having no clear recollection of when or how we got here though we are told about the birds and the bees at some point. And we know we will die. This is a general answer but that is the best one can do. However, each of our lives can come to have meaning (significance) as a function of what we do while we are here. The meaning of your life consists entirely of what you make of it.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Symbolic Acts and Symbolic Words

We like to think that we are rational beings moved to take action upon reading or hearing or mongering up for ourselves some rational argument favoring taking that action. In fact, that is rarely the case. We much more reliably respond to symbols (the flag) and symbolic speech(I regret that I have but one life to give to my country).

Many Americans respond with anger if they see anyone, especially another American burn the flag. The people who burn one know this. They could have chosen to burn their Levis but didn't. In recent months, reprobates of the worst sort have taken to hanging nooses in various places. We all know what that means. Just hanging a rope would mean nothing. Flags and nooses are mere things but they have meaning just as "I hate America" and "I hate Niggers" do but with the possible exception of the word "Nigger," they are more powerful than the language.

Today, I saw the power of actions and words in politics, when Teddy Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter and Teddy's niece, and Patrick Kennedy, Teddy's son, all spoke at a Barak Obama rally in Washington by way of endorsing him. They made quite clear that they meant to be passing on the Kennedy "torch." The Kennedy political line is coming to an end and I think they saw Barak Obama as a way of keeping its social and political values alive.

I first saw Teddy when he spoke on behalf of his brother in his campaign against Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic Nomination. Later, during the campaign against Nixon, I saw JFK give a political speech in Houston, Texas and then latter that evening saw him face a bunch of Baptist Preachers who thought they needed reassurance that he would not be answering to the Pope. Don't be surprised if desperate Republicans start questioning whether Mitt Romney will be answering to the Mormon church Elders.

Their speeches as well as that of Barak Obama were powerfully moving to someone of my age. As I watched Obama's speech, I could see Patrick and his gaze was riveted to Obama and he smiled and applauded when you would expect a true believer to do so. I suspect that Teddy was moved to act in part because what Obama had been saying resonated with him in the way his brother's speeches must have and in part because he was pissed off by Bill Clinton's attacks on Obama. As I began writing this blog, it occurred to me that Teddy might have seen what Bill Clinton was doing to Obama as little different from what Johnson and his supporters did to JFK in their effort to defeat him for the nomination.

Before they spoke, Hillary had a nice edge nationally over Barak. We will see if the action the Kennedy's took in endorsing Obama and the especially eloquent language in which they expressed their support will have a power that goes beyond your garden variety endorsement and endorsement speech. Super Tuesday may give us the answer. Alas that is the day I undergo a hip replacement and I may be too groggy that night to follow the election returns.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Issue of Code

After posting my last blog, I turned on MSNBC for a full day of politics and immediately saw in succession two Black men, one old and one young, claiming that some things the Clinton's have said are code -- that they have social meanings for Blacks that are negative in nature. I think that they are wrong and that what they are saying is as divisive as anything that the Clintons might have said. For something to be code, it has to be shared. It was not in this case.

First, we have to understand that all language has to be interpreted relative to the context in which it occurs. That is a given. Second, there are two types of code of interest here. One is code that is actually a cypher, as when one does some sort of letter substitution known to writer and reader or speaker and hearer that allows them to communicate without others who are not intended to receive the message understanding it. The codes of the military, CIA, etc. are examples of this.

There is another type of code in which people use language that on its face seems harmless but is understood as having some sort of negative meaning. The problem here is that like a military code it too is conventional in that there is a regular association of the negative meaning with the language used. Sports announcers often refer to certain receivers as "possession receivers." The great majority of these are White. In fact, I think that broadcasters automatically assume that if a receiver is White he is a possession speaker. In the 2006 football season, Ohio State had two great receivers, one Black and one Hispanic, the latter as White as any White man. The Hispanic one was constantly referred to as the "possession receiver" even though he was nearly as fast as the Black guy (who had near Olympic class speed), and regularly caught deep passes. Both were first round draft choices and both had successful first pro seasons.

Now there are things that Whites say that Blacks see as deliberately negative. Hillary said, "“Dr King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.” This is factually true. It says nothing whatsoever negative about Dr. King or Blacks or anyone else. Clinton was trying to make the point that Presidential leadership is critical to obtaining changes in policy that people want. Activists inspire -- politicians achieve. This is a fact. This in no way denigrates Dr. King's contribution. Without his inspiration, the dream would have come but surely much later than it did. But without Johnson's driving force and political skills, which were enormous, it probably wouldn't have been realized in law as soon as it was. We had the conjunction in time of the right activist and the right politician, both wanting the same thing.

The reality is that Blacks in general are as racist as Whites are. The problem is that Whites in general have power and Blacks in general do not. So long as that is the case, Blacks will often have a legitimate reason to see some remark a White person makes as racist or racial (evokes race but not as a put down per se). That does not mean that speaker meant it that way. I do not think Hillary's remark was either racist or racial. Obama turned into a racial issue.

Now, had Hillary said, "Martin Luther King was very well-spoken man and he was a great Black leader, but President Johnson is the one responsible for getting legislation through Congress and signing it," then we would have a racist statement. She didn't come close to that.

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Race and Gender in the Democratic Race

Were it not for George Bush, the worst President in American history, and a dismal array of Republican candidates, I would be somewhat fearful of the fact that H. Clinton and Obama continue to be the leading candidates for the Democratic party, for we have never elected a woman or an African-American President before. People are slaves to their habits and voting for white men for President has been our habit from the beginning.

Democrats do have a white male in the race but he has not been able to compete successfully. How much this has to do with him as a campaigner and how much it has to do with the qualities of H. Clinton and Obama I can't say with any assurance. Since Edwards is a quintessential Democrat, in fact a liberal Democrat by today's standard (as opposed to the standard in the 1960's), and is quite presentable, I have to assume that it is H. Clinton's star power (fame and notoriety) and Obama's novelty (the first African American to run who did not come out of the civil rights movement) that is forcing him into the shadows.

Obama's initial appeal to Whites, I believe, was that he has not been running primarily to advance the cause of African Americans or what the very tiresome Jesse Jackson has called the Rainbow Coalition. Rather, he has represented himself simply as running for the Democratic nomination, just as Hillary and Edwards have been. That was a real novelty. African Americans could expect that he would look after their interests, although he was not saying so, but so would the other candidates I imagine.

Then Hillary said, what seems to me to have been a quite innocuous point that it took politicians to enact Martin Luther King's dream and Obama took exception to that. That was, I think, a very stupid thing to do. Her remark would not have been questioned were neither running for President. Obama knows that activists all by themselves can't accomplish very much of anything besides winning the hearts and minds of the people. It takes politicians to realize or, much more commonly, almost realize the reforms of activists. Obama knows this.

Why Obama simply didn't leave this alone I can't say. It has clearly helped him in garnering Black votes and, I suspect, he will win in S. Carolina today thanks to stripping away Black voters (especially women) who might have supported Hillary. But this victory will I think be a Pyrrhic one.

Americans, in contrast to others, have sometimes been described as less racist than racially conscious. Of course both could be true. A symptom of one's being racially conscious is feeling the necessity of including the word "Black" (or whatever other word you use) in sentences like, "I saw this Black doctor yesterday who said I have a stress fracture in my foot." Clearly, the doctor's being Black is totally irrelevant. This verbal behavior is a clear sign that you are racially conscious. Men very commonly would include "female" as a descriptor in the same sentence evidencing clearly that they are gender conscious.

Even if Obama hadn't taken issue with Hillary's statement, race would have become an issue because the media would make it one. It wasn't an issue in the early caucuses and primaries. They all occurred in states in which Blacks were a small minority. But it is an issue in S. Carolina and inevitably the media in analyzing pre-election polls, and the exit polls taken on election day and in post-election analyzes, will break down the voting by race. Once that has happened Obama is doomed unless something unforseable now occurs.

Why do I say he isn't going to win? A continuing problem in America is that while White Americans are often or even usually perfectly comfortable with individual Blacks they are not, I think, all that comfortable with Blacks in general. And in my experience, African Americans are no different from Whites in this respect (except it is Whites in general they aren't comfortable with). I will never forget a Black friend of mine telling me that he would root for an African runner in an Olympics event over a White American. I was stunned. And, I saw Black college students cheering the O. J. Simpson murder trial verdict on TV. That came very close to breaking my heart. They were no different in my mind from the racist Whites that cheered when KKK murderers were found innocent by White juries.

All of this goes back to the fact that we are hard-wired to be suspicious of those who are different from us. During the period in which humans were quite primitive, one's survival depended making sound judgments as to who were and who were not a threat to us. Strangers would normally I think have been perceived as dangerous until they showed they were not. This provides the seed for racist feelings today.

Here is my prediction: Obama will win S. Carolina. (I have not turned the TV on to any news or information channel so I am not cheating here.) This victory will be due to the fact that some whites will vote for him and most Blacks will. Hillary and Edwards will split the rest of the votes. I have heard that Edwards might edge Hillary out. This victory due to Black solidarity -- as ugly a phenomenon as White solidarity or male solidarity -- will, I think, inspire Blacks to gravitate to him and this will lead Whites to move away from him and toward Hillary and Edwards. The net effect will be that Obama will not get the nomination.

Many years ago, I heard a paper at a conference at Georgetown concerning a class room experiment the speaker had run at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He raised a question for debate that he had earlier determined was one that did not break down as to the yeas and nays on racial lines. He picked a Black male and a White male and gave one the nay and the other they yea. By the time the hour was up, the entire class had polarized along racial lines. In a nutshell (the speaker gave a deeper analysis) the division in the class had more to do with debate style than the arguments that were given. The Black speaker was more aggressive than the White speaker and Whites began to see the Black male as hostile when he wasn't at all and the Blacks saw the White speaker as lame though his arguments were as robust as the Black guy's.

I fear there will be considerable racial polarization within the electorate as the campaign continues. It is hard to say whether gender polarization will also occur but it will be very hard to tell sexist attitudes from anti-Hillary attitudes in such a case. What I hope is that Clinton and Obama quit fighting and spend their time and energy on presenting their views on the issues. I think Bill may not let that happen. One benefactor could be Edwards.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Beating up on Hillary

It seems that Obama and Edwards paid dearly for their ganging up on Hillary in the New Hampshire debate, handing her a nice victory thanks to angering women. Male political talking heads, who also have been treating her in predictable sexist ways, may also have helped her out a bit. At the same time, the "First Black President" did not do her candidacy much good when he attacked Obama's proposals as being "fairy tales." The latter seems to have irked some, perhaps many African Americans.

Interestingly, Bill Clinton called Al Sharpton's radio show and, according to an article in The Trail, a section of the Washington Post devoted to the election campaign,
Sharpton began by asking Clinton about the criticism he's received, especially from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, who told the New York Times that "To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us."
If Rep Clyburn believes that Clinton's comments had a racial subtext, then he has a problem because the comment has no racial implications whatsoever, especially given Bill Clinton's record. Surely not all attacks on Clinton aren't sexist and not all attacks on Obama aren't racist but I suspect we will hear a lot of charges of sexism and racism as the election heats up. With any luck it will be over before too much damage is done.

The reaction by women and by Rep. Clyburn, who is not alone in his feelings, serves as an indication that from now until the end of the General Election women and African Americans will have their "feelings outsticking" as my father used to say of himself and others in circumstances in which people were being a bit too sensitive. There is no question that it would be best for the party if everyone behaved and stuck to the issues. However, there is a fundamental difference between Clinton and Obama. Clinton has been a great deal more forthcoming about what she would do as President. Indeed, yesterday Bloomberg.com reported that Hillary has proposed a $70 billion dollar program to deal with the predicted impending recession. This caught Obama and Edwards with no plan at all.

The problem that Obama and Edwards face is that they can't use the phrase "tax and spend Democrat" to poke a stick at her on this issue since that would make them sound like Republicans. We should understand that Bill Clinton meant to be communicating only that there has so far been no real substance to Obama's campaign. He is against the war in Iraq but has no specific program for dealing with terrorists and the nations that in one way or another support them. Like Obama, I was against going into Iraq, but like Obama, who was in the Illinois legislature at the time, and unlike Clinton, who was in the US Senate, I did not have to vote on the issue of giving Dubya the powers he thought sufficient to invade. It is easy for him to say that he didn't support the war.

From now until the end of the Democratic Convention, I would like to see Hillary and Barak tone down their rhetoric and run on the issues with personal attacks being forbidden. This will be very difficult since women and African Americans do seem to have their feelings outsticking. I plan to focus my blog between now and then on this question, not because I care a whit about political correctness issues per se but because I want the Democrats to beat the living hell out of the Republicans in the General Election and my ideal ticket includes both of them.

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