Hard Questions for Discussion and Debate

by NORMAN SIMMS November 30, 2015

There are many hard questions abroad in the world today, with so much that was once certain because of traditions, historical circumstances and educational discipline, now put to the test.  Unfortunately, one of the causes of these shocks to the system, as it were, come about not only because large numbers of immigrants have been shifting about for in the past half century (and not just in the last few years) or because the concept of knowledge has switched from learning the details of history, geography and institutions to instantaneous and therefore superficial data; but because so many people have grown up with no awareness or interest in the questions of where they come from, what motives drove their ancestors, and how to analyse the world around them.

It is very hard to make any comments these days because of the aggressive, rude and irrational opposition of many so-called liberals, students, and media personalities who simply want to shut down all debates (not even "conversations") and remove speakers and topics from the their field of activity or consciousness ("the presence" of points of view, ideas and facts other than those they approve of...or can conceive of...proving to be "unsafe" and a manifestation of "privilege").

Is America the greatest country in the world? 

There are and have been other great countries, and greatness can be manifest in many ways.  The world is big and varied, and peoples need to negotiate, compromise and often cooperate with one another, rather than confront each other out of ignorance and fear. There are wealthy nations who do and those who don't share their wealth.  There are countries with a rich and deep heritage and others who have only recently begun to consolidate their inheritance of diverse migrations.  Sometimes greatness is measured by military prowess and conquest, sometimes by generosity and openness, sometimes by ancient achievements but a failure to modernize.  There are peoples who spread acvross national boundaries but who have no state of their own, and there are small enclaves of people who have maintained their identities for thousands of years despite overwhelming odds.  Superlatives are very tricky things to deal with. Incomplete comparatives leave you dangling.

Is the ownership of guns a God-given right? 

In the United States it is a constitutional right, as interpreted by certain Supreme Court rulings.  In other democratic nations such possession is a privilege not a legal right.  Therefore, subordinate questions should therefore be: Are all firearms, from hunting rifles to target-shooting guns and on to assault and automatic weapons, bazookas and mortars to be included?  Does possession mean having one, two, multiple or multiples through the hundreds part of the right? Are all persons, no matter their age, physical and mental abilities, competent for ownership?  Does possession mean the right to carry, use or sell freely?

Are abortion and euthanasia the equivalent of genocide?

Each of these words represents a concept and each concept has its own social, philosophical, political and religious history, as well as its own polemical resonances.  Genocide begins as a legal term, meaning the attempt to kill off an entire people or nation; its use has been extended metaphorically. 

Abortion is both an act of terminating a pregnancy and its result; some terminations are natural due to accident, congenital or genetic fault or disease, and some are induced deliberately. At the same time as "the pill" provided an opportunity for families to control their own size and women their own bodies, easy access to abortion made it possible to delay or avoid having children altogether for reasons of private, personal and aesthetic reasons.   

Euthanasia is a procedure to ease the pain of death, sometimes prematurely when all that remains of life is pain and suffering and the end of life is already in sight; and sometimes when the prospects of a long existence are marred by unbearable agonies, humiliations and frustrations.  As medical science extended the technical life of the populations beyond traditional expectations without, however, necessarily improving the condition of that existence, the notion of assisted voluntary suicide came into being, and again took on added dimensions of personal comfort, and aesthetic desires, such as, not wishing to become ugly, helpless and unable to function or think fully.  Jonathan Swift's Struddlebugs (in the third book of Gulliver's Travels) could live forever, but gradually losing their physical capacities and mental facilities, and eventually becoming nothing but a pulsating mummy.  

However, within the eugenics movement these concepts took on political and social dimensions, first of all to prevent the reproduction of unwanted criminal, and insane individuals, families and groups, and thus an extreme form of punitive castration or sterilization; and then to ameliorate the condition of certain groups whose poverty, anti-social behaviour and unhappiness disturbed the rest of society and imposed a supposedly deleterious burden on the nation.  

When is it justifiable to criticise Israel?  

Certainly not when the speaker ignores or denies history.  Nor when it motivated by hatred and bigotry. Cautiously in times of immediate peril. As soon as the topic slides from an objection to this or that policy by the government in Jerusalem to a question of the legitimacy of the State itself, then the terms also change from political to mythical; and the language quickly becomes that of anti-Semitism (even if covered with a thin veneer of anti-Zionism. 

Even when seemingly limited to political discourses, where strategic military decisions are objected to, the arguments become all too quickly coated with the slime of lies and counter-factual assertions, usually gleaned from superficial journalism, biased reporting and outright hostility in the world's media. 

Why do bad things happen to good people? 

This is the old question of theodicy, or as John Milton put it in the mid-seventeenth century: "justifying the ways of God to man."  (He said this in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, his epic poem on the Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.)  But if we do not, according to Leibnitz, live "in the best of all possible worlds," how do we know; and should we do not, following Voltaire's disappointed and frustrated optimist young man in the satirical novel named after him and his search for "happiness" in the world, Candide, after trying out all places and ways of living, rather sit at home and "cultivate our own garden"? 

The Information Expansion and the Digital Revolution, are they good for us?

In the last few weeks, a scare-piece has been circulating on the internet asking readers to fall back in astonishment at the exponential increase in the amount of information there now exists readily available through the electronic media; and to stare in wonder at the way in which China and India have such large numbers of experts in the new technology that they already exceed the availability of similarly trained technicians in America and Western Europe; and therefore we all must be prepared to see vast shifts in the nature of who knows what and how that knowledge is used, all suggesting that our traditional concepts of Western Civilization are no longer valid, and, to top it off, that we have a very limited time frame in which to try to catch up and maintain our independence or autonomy in this new world.

The great flaw in this kind of spectacular set of assertions is that it confuses the superficial accumulation of data with the considered organization of knowledge into thoughtful units for discussion.  The writers of the message being circulated claims, both explicitly ion a few points and implicitly throughout, that people in the past had much less information  in their heads, that somehow they did not think as much, and that their culture had vast amounts of empty space. This is on the same order of assertion as that because an English dictionary has more entries for individual words than most other languages it therefore has more content, more flexibility of expression, and greater command of the articulate world. 

This simply neglects combinations of words, idiomatic and technical expressions, tones, registers and degrees of implication in languages.  Thus two hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, or even ten thousand years ago what individuals and groups of people knew filled up their minds, provided sufficient images, words and concepts to deal with all their experiences, aspirations and fears.  They certainly thought other thoughts than we do, sometimes conceptualize their world in ways we can't imagine, and expressed their feelings at length. 

What we are losing with the accumulation of data and the thinning down of modes of expression, as I have pointed out many times through examples of huge, empty jargon words replacing a range of subtle distinctions, resonant allusions to literature, and complex metaphorical constructions is a sense of continuity with the past, speculative and creative dimensions of thinking (e.g., poetry, painting, dance, etc.), and the multi-valent and multi-layered command of many languages and writing systems, regional and professional dialects and personal idiosyncrasies. 

Can the Dangers of Global Jihad bring us to our senses?

Though the signs are there to be read and the facts can be collected and analysed, there are still too many pundits and poobahs who pooh-pooh the idea of a clash of civilizations (or rather a clash between civilizations and total barbarity); or who try to rationalize away the attacks by ISIS, Al-Qaida, Boko Haram and the all the other sects, movements and pseudo-states that have declared their inalterable opposition to Judeo-Christian values, Western democracy, Enlightenment principles and Humanity, saying the Europeans and Americans, along with the Jews, are to blame, that colonialism and capitalist aggression are the enemies, that disaffected and alienated youths are merely expressing their frustrations, and that everything violent and extreme in ideological rants is merely rhetoric.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as amazon.com and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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