The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must

Thucydides wouldn't have been surprised


The February 16-February 28 issue of Counterpunch looked at various statements about international law that have come from offices of the Israeli Defense Forces in the last few years and found in them a systematic disregard for the concept of international law.  These statements, the author of the piece argues, are part of a campaign to render international law irrelevant to the conflicts in Israel/Palestine, and as such represent a threat to the entire project of international law.  The blub on the front of the newsletter asks us to “Imagine an entire world unprotected against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing, a global Gaza!” 

I would suggest that such a feat of imagination might be rather easy to achieve.  The whole history of mankind, from the earliest records to the present moment, offers us the spectacle of precisely such a world.  International law no more protects the weak against the depredations of the powerful today than appeals to justice protected the Melians against Athens in 416 BC.  

Thucydides’ story of the Peloponnesian Wars summarizes my habitual view of “international law,” in his day and ours.  Writing of the events that had led to the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, Thucydides concluded that the main cause of the war was the rising power of Athens and the fear with which the other Greeks viewed that power.  After ten years of desperate struggle, the Spartans and their allies brought Athenian power to a standstill.  A series of negotiations concluded in 421 BC brought the first phase of the war to an end.  Thucydides devotes much of Book 5 of his History to the detailed legalistic language of the treaties of this year known under the name “The Peace of Nicias.”  Thucydides’ decision to devote so much of his text to these documents puts a heavy emphasis on the treaties and their legalism.

Had the History ended there, one might have imagined it to tell a story of the triumph of law in human affairs.  What in fact follows, however, shows that nothing of the kind happened.  The Peace of Nicias was not at all satisfactory, involving frequent confrontations between proxies of Athens and Sparta and occasional battles between Athenian and Spartan forces.  When, five years into that period of  tension, the people of Melos tried to break their alliance with Athens, the Athenians sent envoys to hear the Melians’ case.  The Melians appealed to justice and to the legal principles encoded in the treaties of the Peace of Nicias.  The Athenians responded that “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  When the Melians appealed to notions of legality, the Athenians responded that these obtain among equals, while in cases where one party is far stronger, the other must submit and make the best of submission.  The law that prevails among states is not the sort of law agitated in courts, but a law of nature.  “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do” (Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics translation.)     

The Athenians would destroy Melos, killing its men and selling the women and children as slaves.  Thucydides leaves us to find justice for the Melians in another sort of natural law.  The next topic he turns to is Athens’ invasion of Sicily, a military adventure that would cost Athens tens of thousands of men, virtually its entire fleet, and its hopes of winning the second phase of the Peloponnesian Wars.  By 404 BC, the Athenians would be defeated, as abjectly at the mercy of Sparta as the Melians had been at their own mercy 12 years before.  The ancients Greeks believed that power bred arrogance, that arrogance bred folly, and that folly brought the mighty low. 

The Greeks tended to describe this process in mythological terms, attributing it to the jealousy of the gods.  By laying out a narrative in that traditional form without  dwelling on the gods in his own voice, Thucydides was able to gain a reputation as the first scientific historian.  Whether science can discern in history a pattern of power leading to arrogance leading to folly leading to downfall, the idea of such a pattern is at least as likely to be comforting to the victims of power as are any of the lawyerly fairy tales told at the Hague and in the headquarters of the United Nations. 

As for the case of Israel/ Palestine, the idea of international law may at times have had a gentling effect on the Israeli state.  On the one hand, it may have given the Israeli leadership a set of criteria they had to meet if they were to be assured of a smooth flow of operations in their relations with the outside world.  And now and then, some Israelis may have seen in the promise of international law something they could rally around, something to soften the harsher angles of Zionism.  So whatever limitations there might be in the prospects for international law as an actual force  that could protect the weak “against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing,” and however much the spectacles that we now call “international law” might disgust us, still we might wish that it will go on.

Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings

I was introduced to Georgia O’Keeffe’s work during my undergraduate work.  I was totally fascinated by her paintings of the insides of flowers. 

Her skeleton paintings use to seem haunting to me.  Now I think they have a certain strength to them.  This one looks like a hawk. 

This painting is completely new to me.  I love her bold use of color here. 

I really enjoy looking at her close up paintings of flowers.  They inspired me to take close up photos of flowers, and some of those turned out really well. 

This painting is new to me as well.  I particularly enjoy the shape of the house

The Religious Case Against Belief

James P Carse

I like book catalogs, so it’s always one of the high points of the month for me when Edward Hamilton Bargain Books shows up in the mailbox.  Lately I’ve been intrigued by a 2008 title, The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse.  When I say I was intrigued by the title, I mean precisely that.  There are several ideas that might go under that label, so I wanted to know what it was Carse was saying.  So I looked the book up online and came upon this interview Carse gave to Salon when the book came out.   Here’s a bit that seems to sum up his big idea:

In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Exactly. That’s a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don’t run out as quickly is that they’re able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

Carse seems to be saying that the main thing that’s praiseworthy about religion is that it binds one generation of people to other generations.  Belief systems can’t do that, at least not beyond a few generations and certainly not without a great risk that the militant ignorance needed to sustain the system will do less to bring people together than to drive them apart and to bring in elements of intimidation that will poison such relationships as they do maintain.  So Carse’s case seems to rest on an appeal to use rituals, stories, and a sense of awe to lower the barriers that separate one person from another. 

Carse was for 30 years a professor of religious studies at New York University; his case sounds like the sort of plea a kindly old scholar might make to the world at the end of such a career.  He maintains a fine blog, and is an accomplished photographer.  I hope to be a kindly old scholar myself someday, I blog, and I appreciate photography.  So I admire Carse and wish him well. 

Another idea that I thought a book called The Religious Case Against Belief might put forward is one that’s been on my mind as I’ve tagged along with Mrs Acilius to her Quaker meeting every Sunday.  Many Quakers, like other mystics, distrust language and say that they seek a knowledge that cannot be confined to the words of human speech.  So Quakers have historically resisted the formulation of creeds and litanies.  Dogmatic theology has little place in the history of Quakerism.  Quakers might quote Thomas á Kempis with approval, when he wrote in the Imitation of Christ that he was grateful for his education because it had freed him from a multitude of opinions.  It would seem logical for a mystic of the Quaker stamp to take Thomas a step further, and to define religion, not as a set of beliefs, but as a set of practices that free a person from the power that beliefs formulated in language might have over his or her mind.

How rumors get started, nowadays

Here is a fascinating account of how a group of people shut up in a room together managed, within 26 minutes, to start a rumor that made national news.

The “Academic We” again

From a brief interview with Martha Nussbaum on The Nation‘s website.  Speaking of various things people say when they are trying to come up with arguments against same-sex marriage, Nussbaum says:

Then there’s finally the argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will degrade or defile straight marriage. What’s that about? It looks something like the claim that admitting all these baseball players who use steroids to the Hall of Fame would degrade the achievements of the genuine competitors. It taints the achievement. But what can that be about? We don’t think that heterosexuals who are flaky, silly or awful, Britney Spears marrying on a whim and then divorcing almost immediately, we don’t think that that taints the institution of heterosexual marriage.

I share Nussbaum’s puzzlement that opponents of same-sex marriage have offered such a poor array of arguments to defend their stand.  You’d think that with all the financial and political resources on their side they might have come up with something that at least took some work to disprove, yet what they’ve come up with is simply preposterous.  My quarrel is not with Nussbaum’s position on this issue, but with the last sentence of the section I’ve quoted. 

That sentence here features what I like to call “the Academic We.”  I suppose everyone is familiar with the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people. 

Who exactly is in Nussbaum’s “we”?  Nussbaum gives so little detail about Britney Spears and her marriage that it is clear she expects the reader to know who Britney Spears is and to know the story of her marriage.  Moreover, her flat conjunction of  the words “silly, flaky, or awful” with her reference to Spears shows that she does not expect to hear from anyone who approves of what Spears did.  If everyone can be expected to know a story and no one can be expected to defend the behavior of one figure in it, clearly that story must have some moral force in the community where it is told.  To me, it would seem that the likeliest moral for a story in which a person who takes marriage lightly is represented as “silly, flaky, or awful” is that taking marriage lightly is an abuse of a valuable institution. 

Nussbaum says that when we hear arguments about institutions being debased, “We can’t understand what’s being said without going back to some kind of magical idea about stigma or taint.”  While the antigay statements Nussbaum is considering may well be examples of magical thinking, no such thinking is on display in the debate about whether to include steroid users and other notorious cheaters in the  Baseball Hall of Fame.   To people who respect baseball and who see their values reflected in its rules, excellence in baseball can be a point of pride or a source of legends.  To those for whom baseball is a foolish activity and who find its rules alien to their culture, excellence in baseball will count for nothing.  Therefore, to admit known juicers to the Hall of Fame is to cheapen the achievements of clean players. 

Baseball is a very strange example for Nussbaum to choose to illustrate her point.  One might say that there are actions that have value in themselves, apart from any particular social institution.  Perhaps the creation of a monogamous sexual relationship between people who share property and a common social identity may be such an action.  Maybe there’s something inherent in the nature of things that ordains such relationships as a telos of human virtue.  In that case, even if the people who enact such a relationship are entirely isolated from any broader community, a self-sufficient entity called “honor” might still inhere in it.  Hey, for all I know, that could be true. 

But I do know that no action performed in a baseball game is of any value apart from the rules, traditions, and social standing of baseball.  The honor that baseball players earn is solely a function of baseball as an institution.   A swing of the bat that sends a ball to one side of the foul line may be an achievement; a swing that sends it to the other side is not.  Had the institution of baseball evolved to draw the line in a different place, swings that now mean nothing would become the stuff of legend, while swings that made history would have passed unnoticed.  Indeed, the idea that honor could inhere in the achievements of Satchel Paige or Babe Ruth even in a society where the institution of baseball had lost its moral salience is a pure example of magical thinking.

Pattern for Plunder

How Shirley Temple earned her ambassadorship

Lately I’ve been looking at Pattern for Plunder, a website that collects found images.  Most of the pictures are disturbing in some way.  A few sfw examples follow the jump.


Birthdays are for Everyone

I have been wondering.  Why is it that our society has labeled birthday celebrations as something only for the young?  I hear people say things like “I’m too old to celebrate my birthday,” or “It’s just another day”.  I disagree, and I think God would agree with me.  Isaiah Chapter 43 verse 1 says, “But now, O Israel, the Lord who created you says, ‘do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.  I have called you by name; you are mine.”  The Lord knows all 6 billion plus of us by name, and we are his.  He loves each of us dearly, and wants us to love ourselves.  He wants us to celebrate the very life that he has given us.  What better time to do that than on your birthday.  Birthdays are a kind of personal New Year.  They are a chance to reflect, and to reconnect with people and with God.

A “Textbook Case” of Thought Control

There’s a pro-torture statement in the following college-level English textbook:  Evergreen:  A Guide to Writing with Readings, 8th edition, by Susan Fawcett, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 576-578.  The statement is entitled “The Case for Torture” and is credited to a Michael Levin (described in Wikipedia as “a libertarian philosophy professor at City University of New York.”)

“The Case for Torture” appears with some other essays on different topics.

Consider the following position:  “White Americans are inherently more intelligent than African-Americans.”  Does this position deserve a fair hearing in the pages of textbooks?  If textbook publishers fail to include this position, are they exercising “censorship”?

“Well, people who advocate racialist ideology are outside the cultural mainstream, whereas the torture debate is occurring within the cultural mainstream.  Therefore it is valid to present some part of that debate in a textbook.”

How do you determine whether a position lies within “the cultural mainstream”?  Is it a question of numbers?  Would that position then become acceptable?

“Well, a lot of people really do believe in torture.”

Do they believe in it, or do they just accept it?  The authority structure generated this issue through a campaign of mass indoctrination.  It is folly to assume that, just because a media pundit expresses a given position, that position is automatically non-insane.

“Well, I don’t support torture, but we have to at least consider what the pro-torture advocates are saying.”

However, we don’t:  We don’t have to consider or grant the slightest validity to what they are saying.  That we should do so is precisely the objective of the indoctrination effort.

The phrase “an insidious act of propaganda” is apt.  Inserting the piece sends a message that it has something plausible to say.  It doesn’t.

Did the ancient Carthaginians practice child sacrifice?

Our literary sources about ancient Carthage unanimously testify that the residents of that great city regularly offered their children as human sacrifices to the gods Ba’al and Tanit.  This practice was supposedly known as the “Moloch.”  However, none of those sources was a text written by a Carthaginian.  We have writings about Carthage and its parent nation of Phoenicia by Greeks, Romans, and Jews, three peoples against whom the Carthaginians and their Phoenician cousins fought wars.  Since the Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians all expressed horror of human sacrifice, we might well look on these reports with a measure of scepticism. 

A study of Carthaginian remains published last month in PLoS One did not find evidence to confirm the idea that the Carthaginians sacrificed their children.  The researchers could search only the contents of certain funerary urns, leaving open the possibility that the Carthaginians may have disposed of the ashes of their sacrificed children otherwise than in those urns.  So the question is still unsettled.

Ukuleles for Peace

Thanks to Armelle for promoting this documentary about Ukuleles for Peace, a group that brings Jewish and Muslim children in Israel together to play ukuleles. Daphna Orion and Paul Moore are the husband-and-wife team behind the organization; their comic bickering in Part One is worth the price of admission. 

Part One

Part Two