February 12, 2007


The lighter side of national extinction (Spengler, 2/13/07, Asia Times)

The passing of Anna Nicole Smith last week was a reminder that death has a humorous side. Smith reportedly styled herself another Marilyn Monroe, to whose death hers bears a definite resemblance. This recalls Karl Marx's quip about Napoleon III - "History repeats itself, but the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce."

"Always look on the bright side of death!" sang the crucified chorus in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Jokes of this ilk are in deplorable taste, but we laugh at them regardless, and with good reason. We can laugh at the death of individuals (and not just silly or disagreeable ones like the late Ms Smith) because we know that individual death is not the end. [...]

Only one truly funny national-extinction joke currently circulates; it concerns the man from a certain country who reproaches actor William Shatner of Star Trek as follows: "On your show, you had Russians, Chinese, Africans, and many others - why did you never have a character of my nationality?" Shatner replies, "You must understand that Star Trek is set in the future." I will leave it to the reader to decide which nation best fits the joke.

Today's wave of national extinction is of an entirely different character, for the peoples who soon will take their leave from the Earth do so because they no longer wish to live, and not because some other people wishes to wipe them out.

In Whose Image Shall We Die? (Eric Cohen, Winter 2007, New Atlantis)

Perhaps this is why Albert Camus's modern hero is the embattled doctor in plague-time, with the distance between plague-time and normal-time blurred by the omnipresence and omnipotence of death. In Camus's myth of Sisyphus, Franklin's yearning for indefinite life becomes a rage against death. Death becomes a crisis, not just a problem. Perhaps the difference is that Sisyphus knows death firsthand, in all its wretched blankness. He dies and then returns; his passion for life comes from knowing the alternative of nothingness.

But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.

Whereas Socrates sees his tranquil death as a divine gift, Sisyphus sees death as a divine theft, to be opposed (futilely) with all his mortal might.

In Camus, Franklin's desire for life is taken to passionate extremes. The passion of Sisyphus is more like the passion of Christ, but without the redemptive victory. Instead of the long hours of crucifixion followed by the eternity of resurrection, Sisyphus faces the permanent recurrence of pushing a rock up a hill, never reaching the top, always rolling back down to the underworld, never fully rising again. For Sisyphus, opposition to death is everything, but success is impossible. There is, at most, a brief moment of existential satisfaction, when the rock lies still near the top, before beginning again its eternal slide to nothingness.

In Sisyphus, Camus believes he has found an answer to the modern crisis of death: heroic revolt, ending in knowing acceptance of futility, a knowledge that makes man superior to the absurdity of his fate. "The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." To some, perhaps, such scornful stoicism is satisfying, but for most people it is not. They prefer to look away from death until it stares them in the face; and when it does, they seek Franklin's help, hoping the cleverness of science can triumph one more time over the oblivion that terrifies them.

Modern science thus takes up the mantle of death-as-crisis; the ethic of triage makes ordinary morality seem absurd in the face of death's permanent absurdity. This point has been described beautifully by Yuval Levin in these pages, reflecting upon the deeper meaning of our current debates over embryo research:

[I]f the fight against disease writ large--indeed the fight against natural death--is an emergency, and if ... it is a struggle we can never expect fully to win, then we must always live in a state of emergency. We should be always in a crisis mode, always pulling out all stops, always suspending the rules for the sake of a critical goal. And that means, in effect, that there should be no stops and no rules; only crisis management and triage.... But if life is always at risk and we are always in crisis, then we must always do things that moral contemplation would suggest are wrong. If we are always in a mode of triage, then we must always choose the strong over the weak because they have a better chance at benefiting from our help.

The trouble is that in this war against disease and death, we risk undermining the ideals we profess to hold most dear, beginning with the ideal of human equality. We are tempted to treat the most vulnerable as tools to sustain us in the struggle against death. And when this fight must end inevitably in the defeat we cannot avert, we are tempted to violate equality yet again, by treating the old and debilitated (including the future self) as "lives unworthy of life," as unsightly evidence of our failure. Without Jacob's remembering children, without Jesus' saving faith, without Franklin's triumphant method, we are left in the condition of Sisyphus: faced with the crisis of death we cannot conquer, trapped in a mortal condition we seem ill-equipped to endure.

Across the Great Divide: Investigating Links Between Personality and Politics (PATRICIA COHEN, 2/12/07, NY Times)
What seem to be ordinary, everyday objects to some people can carry a storehouse of information about the owner's ideology, says a new wave of social scientists who are studying the subtle links between personality and politics. [...]

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, said he found this work intriguing but was more inclined to see a person's moral framework as a source of difference between liberals and conservatives. Most liberals, he said, think about morality in terms of two categories: how someone's welfare is affected, and whether it is fair. Conservatives, by contrast, broaden that definition to include loyalty, respect for authority, and purity or sanctity. Conservatives have a richer, more elaborate moral horizon than liberals, Mr. Haidt said, because there is a "whole dimension to human experience best described as divinity or sacredness that conservatives are more attuned to."

So how does he explain the red-blue divide? "Areas with less mobility and less diversity generally have the more traditional," broadened definition of morality, "and therefore were more likely to vote for George W. Bush -- and to tell pollsters that their reason was 'moral values,' " he and his co-writer, Jesse Graham, say in a paper to be published this year by The Journal Social Justice Research.

Mr. Jost did his own research on the red-blue divide. Using the Internet he and his collaborators gave personality tests to hundreds of thousands of Americans. He found states with people who scored high on "openness" were significantly more likely to have voted for the Democratic candidate in the past three elections, even after adjustments were made for income, ethnicity and population density. States that scored high on "conscientiousness" went Republican in the past three elections.

Some of these psychological studies have been dogged by charges of bias however. In 2003 a mammoth survey of more than 50 years of research on the psychology of conservatism that Mr. Jost and Mr. Kruglanski undertook with the help of Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway at Berkeley concluded that conservatives tend to be "rigid," "close-minded" and "fearful," less tolerant of minorities and more tolerant of inequality. At the time the conservative columnist George F. Will ridiculed the results: "The professors have ideas; the rest of us have emanations of our psychological needs and neuroses."

The authors insist they are not making value judgments; whether a particular trait is positive or negative depends on circumstance. "Fear of death has the highest correlation with being conservative," Mr. Sulloway said. But he continued: "What's wrong with fearing death? If you don't fear death, evolution eliminates you from the population."

Poor Mr. Sulloway, it stinks when reality trumps your theory. Instead it is the religious who don't fear death and the secular who are marching quiescently towards theirs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2007 9:44 AM

Spangler does leave it open for interpretation [and passes over the fact that Picard was French]; however,most of his readers will put corporatist, fascist, greedy, powerhungry, polluter America. (did I leaveanything out)

Posted by: Dave W at February 12, 2007 10:58 AM

Picard was French in Name Only.
The story goes that when TNG was first getting planned, Gene Roddenberry really, really wanted a French captain on the mold of Jaques Cousteau. He actually wanted to cast Gerard Depardieu. The other producers hated this idea because they felt (quite correctly) that no American audience would connect to a French captain. One of them saw Patrick Stewart in a play in London and said, "That's our man!" and started pressuring Gene. So, in the end, we got a captain with a French name who talks with a British accent and who, outside of the first season, never uses any French words.
Sisko is still the best captain.

Posted by: Bryan at February 12, 2007 11:05 AM

About ten years ago, Patrick Stewart spoke at the National Press Club in DC, which was carried by CSPAN. Asked about Picard's flawless English, he said they did a few tests where he spoke with a French accent, "But it came out sounding rather like Inspector Clouseau".

And speaking of French-Canadian Star Fleet captains, note the five minute mission of Geneviève Bujold as Captain Janeway.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at February 12, 2007 1:15 PM

About ten years ago, Patrick Stewart spoke at the National Press Club in DC, which was carried by CSPAN. Asked about Picard's flawless English, he said they did a few tests where he spoke with a French accent, "But it came out sounding rather like Inspector Clouseau".

And speaking of French-Canadian Star Fleet captains, note the five minute mission of Geneviève Bujold as Captain Janeway.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at February 12, 2007 1:20 PM

Ed, I had forgotten about Bujold's initial part on the show. She was a model, not a captain, and it's easy to see why she was pulled.

The embodiment of French leadership that I remember most is the admiral who tries to smack down Gene Hackman in the movie where Owen Wilson plays the pilot down in Serbia (don't remember the title). The guy was a perfect preening weasel, and well played by the actor.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2007 1:33 PM

I think the movie was "Behind Enemy Lines".

Posted by: jd watson at February 12, 2007 2:02 PM


The actor did play a great part, but he was portraying a Dutch admiral, not French.

Posted by: Pete at February 12, 2007 2:16 PM

If you see footage from Geneve Bujold's literally five-minute turn as a Starfleet captain it is astonishingly bad. She acts as if she would rather be anywhere else but on that set. "Uh, Captain, we're under attack...shouldn't you give a damn about that?"

Posted by: Bryan at February 12, 2007 2:42 PM

Well, I googled the film and the admiral's name was Piquet and at least two movie review sites describe him as French.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2007 5:39 PM

His full name is Juan Miguel Piquet. Doesn't sound French or Dutch. I have a pic of him in the uniform he wore. I haven't had any luck so far in finding out whose navy it belongs to.

Posted by: Pete at February 12, 2007 7:07 PM

Perhaps he is from the Pyrenees, or Biarritz. Or he could even be a secret Basque operative (a sub-plot that was later dropped).

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2007 10:58 PM

That's it Jim, he was from Andorra!

Posted by: Dave W at February 13, 2007 12:55 AM


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