Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Bertrand Russel Invites Hitler to Dinner

March 11, 2014

In this article in the Times of Israel,  I read what seems to be another example of moral idiocy regarding Hitler in a letter by British philosopher Bertrand Russell which was recently acquired by the Museum of Tolerance, a part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In this 1937 letter, he suggests that if the Germans invade England, the English should invite their leaders to dinner with the Prime Minister rather than fight them.

Not everyone may be familiar with the life and thoughts of Bertrand Russell, so before going any further, I had better say a few words about him. Bertrand Russell was, as I said, a British philosopher and mathematician who lived from 1872-1970. He was born into an aristocratic British family, but both his parents, who died when he was young, were radicals and atheists. Raised by his paternal grandparents and educated at home by tutors, Russel had a lonely childhood and adolescence, but developed a keen interest in mathematics.  He studied and later taught at Cambridge where he also was interested in logic, philosophy and social criticism. At various times, Russell described himself as a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist. He was not very consistent in holding any of these social and political views, however, and might be better described as a gadfly. He led demonstrations against World War I when it was not popular to do so, but he was never imprisoned for his activities, as he hoped. As his letter might suggest, he was no more eager for Britain to fight against Hitler.

The Museum of Tolerance has acquired a 1937 letter written by Bertrand Russell in which the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher says if the Nazi army invades his native England the British should invite Adolf Hitler to dinner rather than fight.

The museum, part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, announced Wednesday that it paid $4,000 for the letter at an auction in England last month.

“If the Germans succeed in sending an invading army to England we should do best to treat them as visitors, give them quarters and invite the commander and chief to dine with the prime minister,” Russell wrote to British critic Godfrey Carter. “Such behavior would completely baffle them.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founder, says Bertrand’s letter will be placed in the museum alongside one that Hitler wrote in 1919 outlining the anti-Semitic views that would lead to the Holocaust and killing of 6 million Jews.

The museum’s mission is to educate people about the Holocaust and challenge them to oppose discrimination in all forms. The Russell letter is important, Hier said, because it warns future generations that even a distinguished scholar can be wrong in allowing evil to go unchallenged.

“The fact of the matter is he had all the credentials. He probably was Britain’s greatest philosopher and won the Nobel Prize for literature after all,” Hier said. “But he didn’t understand a basic concept: that the idea that you allow evil to flourish under these conditions, that if we act nice to Hitler, serve him the best wine, that Hitler will come around to see things our way is just preposterous.”

Russell, one of the 20th century’s leading pacifists, eventually changed his views on Hitler.

In the letter, written during the time Hitler was stripping German Jews of their rights, sending political prisoners to the brutal Dachau concentration camp and building a huge military machine, Russell said he saw no value in engaging the country in war.

“We may win or we may lose,” he wrote. “If we lose obviously no good has been done. If we win we shall inevitably during the struggle acquire their bad qualities and the world at the end will be no better off than if we had lost.”

Such behavior certainly would baffle any invader. Most of the German soldiers would be relieved not to have Englishmen shooting at them. They might even be inclined to be relatively kind to a subject people who didn’t fight back. The sadists, there are some in every army, would take the lack of resistance as sign that they could commit atrocities without fear of retribution. Hitler and the Nazis would have regarded British nonresistance with contempt regarding it as a sign of racial inferiority. No matter how the occupiers behaved, however, Britain would still be occupied. The British would still have to cooperate hunting down their Jews and the resources of the United Kingdom would still be used to further Hitler’s ambitions.

To be fair to Bertrand Russell, he did change his mind about a war with Hitler, as the article suggested. It was also to his credit that he never supported the Bolsheviks in Russia, as so many of his fellow intellectuals did. In fact, after World War II, Russell even proposed that the United States launch a preemptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union, while we still had a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Of course, this proposal showed him to be as clueless about the real world around him as did his idea of inviting Hitler to dinner.

Also, to be fair, in 1937, when the letter was written, it may not have been clear to everyone that Hitler was a monster. He was a dictator who ruled by force and terror and he persecuted the Jews. Hitler was also genuinely popular with the German people, and he seemed to be doing Germany a lot of good. Hitler’s regime was not nearly as oppressive as Stalin’s. Hitler did settle scores and purge the Nazi party upon obtaining power, but his Night of the Long Knives was a mere trickle of blood compared to the oceans of blood in Stalin’s Great Purges. As for the Jews, the campaign of extermination did not really begin until 1941. The Jews had been stripped of German citizenship and were slowly being excluded from German public life, but until Kristallnacht in 1938, it could be argued that the Nazi treatment of the Jews was not much different from the American treatment of African-Americans, especially in the segregated south.

But no, this will not work.The average person in Britain, France, or America could not be expected to know very much about Hitler and his regime in 1937. They had their own problems trying to survive the Depression. Bertrand Russell ought to have known better. As a man who was not shy about giving his advice on nearly every subject and who was Britain’s preeminent public intellectual, he certainly should have been better informed. It is not as if Hitler really tried to conceal his ultimate intentions.

It seems to be very odd that there is some sort of inverse relationship between the amount of a certain type of intelligence some people possess and the lack of judgement those same, otherwise intelligent, people have regarding basic human nature. I wonder why it didn’t occur to Russell that if Hitler had some grievance against Britain that justified, in his mind, a war and invasion, he would hardly be swayed by dinner and drinks into giving up and going back to Germany. But, perhaps mathematics and logic are easier to understand than people.

 

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Beyond the Pale

March 3, 2014

I sometimes hear or read the phrase, “beyond the pale”, meaning an action or statement that is unacceptable or beyond the limit of respectable behavior, and I have to wonder just what a “pale” is and how the phrase came to mean what it does. Naturally, I looked it up. A pale is simply a fortified fence or boundary. The word pale derives from the Latin “palus” which means a stake, such as one used to build a fence. The origin of the word, pale, and the phrase beyond the pale, is most likely from the English Pale in Ireland. Historically, the Pale separated the region of Ireland under English control from the areas still ruled by the Irish. The origin and history of the Pale is interesting.

 

Ireland has never been unified into a single nation, before the modern Republic of Ireland. Instead, the Irish have usually been divided into many kingdoms, subkingdoms, clans, etc. There have been high kings of Ireland, but they have seldom had much influence beyond their own lands and allies. This chaotic political situation has often offended the more orderly English, who felt obliged to invade Ireland in order to provide the Irish with more stability. The first such invasion was the Norman Invasion of 1169. The Normans easily conquered most of Ireland, but, like most conquerors, they found it harder to rule the land than to invade it. With distractions such as the Hundred Year’s War and wars with Scotland, the Anglo-Normans didn’t have the manpower to effectively occupy Ireland. They could send Norman colonists to Ireland, but these colonists tended to intermarry with the Irish and adopt the Irish culture and language. Finally, during the fourteenth century, the English built a system of fences and fortified ditches which came to be known as “The Pale”. Within the pale English laws and culture were enforced. English was the only permitted language and intermarriage with native Irish strictly forbidden. Beyond the Pale, the English maintained nominal control of Ireland through alliances with Irish leaders and the descendants of the Norman settlers. So, within the pale, everyone was supposed to be proper, civilized Englishmen. Beyond the pale were the wild, barbarous Irish.

 

Historical map of Ireland from http://Www.wesl...

Historical map of Ireland from http://Www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/maps/historical/map1300.gif (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The plan didn’t work, in the long run. Over time, the lands defined by the Pale shrank as the English crown was preoccupied by wars, and internal unrest. The Irish gained control over more and more of their island and even within the pale, the inhabitants became increasingly Irish is culture. Finally, in 1541, Henry VIII had the Parliament of Ireland declare him King of Ireland and set about conquering the whole island. It wasn’t until 1603 that all the resistance was crushed and Ireland was pacified. There was no more need for a boundary and the pale was allowed to fall into disrepair. The English settlers in Ireland became entirely assimilated into the Irish population, especially since they had refused to give up Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. All that remained was the phrase which distinguished what was and was not acceptable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hitler Was Not Evil?

February 26, 2014

One of the related articles that was suggested for my previous post was an article titled Hitler Was Not Evil by an anonymous writer. I chose not to include that article in the list of related articles but I think it might be worthwhile to go over it. The writer is not a Nazi, as you might expect, nor did the article make the argument  that Hitler’s actions were, in fact, virtuous. Anonymous’s problem is deeper than that. He does not believe there is such a thing as evil.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, I do not see Adolf Hitler as the “personification of evil” or the most “evil” person that has ever existed.

Hitler was simply a politician like one of the many politicians today. And just like almost all politicians today, his actions were defined by a core belief, greed, ego and a certain love for the country he ruled.

The more sensitive readers would react now with “whoa! whoa! Hitler and love?! Hitler is EVIL! EVIL!”

Evil does not exist, but is a concept of the human intellect. What do we define as evil? We tend to associate unjust things with evil, or things we do not agree with. Essentially, what we feel or think is evil is simply what we do not agree with.

“Who cares about a technical definition? What Hitler did was EVIL! ”

Aiming to wipe out the Jews, that must be evil, right?

No.

As I just said, no one does anything without a reason. And like I just said, any man’s actions are trigger by his own ego, greed, and his core belief.

Hitler believed that the Jews were harming Germany. Hitler believed that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust. Hitler believed that Austria and the Third Reich should become united.

These all came from his belief.

“His beliefs are EVIL!”

No.

Like I just said, we define something as evil when this something does not agree with our moral standards.

Americans defined Communism as evil during the Cold War because they did not agree with it. Everybody being equal and controlled by the State did not agree with the “freedoms” of America. And because it did not agree with these Freedoms, Communism was defined as “bad” and “evil”.

Now in retrospect, can it really be defined as evil? No.

Of course I am not saying that what Hitler did was right. Of course not. I am saying that Hitler was not evil, but simply a man who did what he believed was right for the German people at that time. Of course, just like any politician today, his actions were also motivated by greed, ego and more greed. But it is important to make the distinction that Hitler was not an exception. He was simply a statesman who didn’t get away with it.

For example, Mao Ze Dong got away with it. Stalin (kind of) got away with it. The leaders of Meiji Japan got away with it.

And as a history major allow me to assure you, when comparing what the Japanese Imperial Army did in the 1930s and 1940s in South East Asia, the gas chambers of Auschwitz can be considered merciful.

“But Hitler brought misery to all of Europe! He is Evil!”

This might be what the more persistent readers will be saying/thinking.

Perhaps why the perception of Hitler being evil is so deeply rooted in so many peoples’ minds is that after WWII, the Allies needed to have a focus. The Meiji leaders of Meiji Japan perhaps are not remembered as completely evil because after WWII, the Western powers sought peace in Asia and Japan was a great trading partner. This left Hitler and Mussolini.

And naturally, Hitler got the Spotlight of Evil in history textbooks.

Yet, Hitler is not an exception even by today’s standards.

America’s War on Terror may be justified by the core belief of 9/11 and that the American Way is right without question. It is ironic that it seems that very few people have ever thought about why there is this hate to begin with.

This is moral idiocy and historical ignorance. America’s War on Terror is usually justified by the fact that Islamic terrorist flew planes into the sides of buildings. I would not say that the American Way is right without question, but a society that values freedom of expression and equality is superior to one that values religious persecution and aggression against the infidel. A government that guarantees basic human rights is superior to one that suppresses all freedoms. Our Way is superior to Islam. It is superior to Communism.

While the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army have not gotten the attention that they should have, perhaps because the victims were Asians, there were war crimes trials in Japan after World War II and several offenders were hanged. By the way, the Meiji period refers to the reign of the Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1868-1912, in which Japan moved from feudalism into a modern society. The leaders of Japan during the war were not the Meiji.

It is true that Mao and Stalin got away with their tyranny, while Hitler did not. So what? If I were to commit the perfect crime and never got caught, it would still be a crime. The fact that Mao and Stalin died peacefully and escaped punishment in this world, does not mean their actions were right, nor does it mean that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were statesmen or typical politicians. They were not.

Anonymous claims to believe that good and evil are simply human constructs and that what we regard as good or evil is simply a matter of personal preference. I wonder if he really believes this. If I were to go to his home and start taking his possessions, would he simply allow me, or would be try to stop me? What if I explained that his objection to my actions is simply because it is against his particular moral standards, but not mine, so that what I am doing isn’t wrong? I think he would go ahead and call the police.

I don’t thing anyone, or at least very few, really believe that there is no such thing as a standard of good and evil. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, people in a quarrel invariably appeal to some higher standard of justice when making their case. Even the worst criminals often try to justify their actions. The bank robber robbed banks because they cheat the poor. The rapist’s victim deserved it because of the way she dressed. The conqueror invades and despoils a country to bring the light of civilization, or the true faith to the hapless natives, or to avenge past wrongs. Even the sociopath, who lacks a conscience, is quick to recognize when an injustice is done to him. The fact that people often try to justify bad actions with pleasant reasoning does not mean that there is no standard of good or evil. I think this fact actually strengthens the case for such a standard.

It is true that people do not always agree on what is good or evil. This doesn’t mean that that good and evil do not really exist, only that people that people can be mistaken. Slavery is almost universally regarded as immoral in the modern world, yet no one objected to slavery in ancient times. This does not mean that the question of slavery is simply a matter of social convention. The ancients also believed that the Sun went around the Earth. We have learned that they were mistaken about the relative positions of the Earth and the Sun. In like manner, we have learned that they were mistaken about the acceptance of slavery. Anonymous concludes:

So, do not brainlessly brand Hitler as pure evil. If you strictly judge, he was simply a man who did what he believed was right, along with greed and ego as motivators (just like any person today). Nothing more, nothing less.

Hitler was not pure evil. Like any human being, he was a mixture of good and evil. His actions were unquestionably evil. He may well have believed that he was doing the right thing. Most people do. That doesn’t change that he was mistaken. We need not adopt a stance of idiot moral relativism.

According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...

Yes, he was evil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Don’t Kill Hitler

February 24, 2014

A couple of days ago, I read an interesting article in The Guardian titled “Time Travelers: Please Don’t Kill Hitler” by Dean Burnett. In this article, Mr. Burnett makes the argument that terrible as Adolf Hitler was, it would be a mistake for someone from the future to go back in time and kill him.

If you find yourself suddenly gaining access to a time machine, what’s the first thing you’d do? If you said “kill Adolf Hitler”, then congratulations; you’re a science-fiction character. Actually, the whole “access to a time machine” thing suggested that already, but the desire to kill Hitler clinches it. Any time-travelling sci-fi character (at least ones created by Western society) seems to want to kill Hitler, so much so that there’s a trope about how it’s impossible.

That attempting to kill Hitler has become such a common sci-fi plot device speaks volumes. What about Stalin? He was arguably worse, killing 20 million of his own people to fuel his ideology. But no, Stalin went about his business unmolested by time travellers, all of whom are busy targeting Hitler.

It’s understandable. Who wouldn’t want to prevent the holocaust? It’s probably the worst thing in history. And I only say “probably” because I don’t know all of history, and the human capacity to be awful should not be underestimated. But as noble as it seems, killing the Fuhrer via time travel is a terrible idea, for real-world reasons, not just those in fiction. So should you get hold of a time machine and make plans to kill Hitler, here are some reasons why you shouldn’t.

He gives some very good arguments for not killing Hitler and the whole article is worth reading. Personally, I do not think that Hitler was the greatest villain in history. Don’t get me wrong. He was an evil person and the Holocaust was one of the greatest atrocities in human history, but Stalin and Mao killed far more people than Hitler and their regimes were far more cruel. I would not want to live under any dictatorship but I would prefer to live in Nazi Germany over Communist Russia or China. Pol Pot has the record for most people killed in proportion to the population of the the country he ruled. Under his rule the Khmer Rouge may have killed as much as a third of Cambodia’s population. Hitler was eventually defeated. Communism fell in the Soviet Union and has been much modified in China. In North Korea and Cuba, the people have suffered under unreformed Communist tyranny for over fifty years, longer than anywhere else. Castro and the Kim dynasty may not have the death toll of a Hitler or Stalin but the misery they have inflicted on their people must be as great over time.

One argument that Burnett makes is that Hitler was uniquely responsible for the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. This was hardly the case.

Stephen Fry dealt with this superbly in his book Making History. Without spoilers, the problem is that many assume Hitler was the sole cause of the second world war and all the associated horrors. Sadly, this is a gross oversimplification. Germany in the 1930s wasn’t a utopia of basket-weaving peace lovers who were suddenly and severely corrupted by Hitler’s charismatic moustache. The political tensions and strife were all there, results of a previous world war and a great depression; Hitler was just able to capitalise on this. But if he hadn’t, say because he had been eliminated by an errant time traveller, then there’s nothing to say that nobody else would.

The truth is that Hitler invented very little of the ideology of the Nazi Party. Most of the ideas he preached; the Aryan master race, the evil of the Jews, the necessity of struggle to improve the race, etc, were held by many Germans who considered themselves enlightened and progressive. The minds of most educated Germans, (and others throughout the West)  were filled with ideas from Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and others in a sort of mixture that included ideas about inferior and superior races and violence as a method of either improving the race through struggle, or overturning a corrupt order to bring about a new world. In other words, Hitler was far from being the only person who supported ideas that we now associate with the Nazis, nor did he really have much trouble convincing millions of Germans he was right. If Hitler had been killed in childhood by a time traveler, it is likely some one else, with the same sort of ideas would have come to power.

According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...

The Nazis weren’t the only ones who wanted to overthrow the Weimar Republic. The Communists were the Nazi’s greatest rivals in politics. Without a Hitler, perhaps the Communists would have come to power in the 1930s. That might have been far worse Germany and the world. Hitler was briefly allied with Stalin from 1939 until 1941 when he double crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. This was Hitler’s greatest mistake and it caused him to lose the war. If Germany were controlled by Communist leader who remained allied with Stalin, perhaps even a puppet of Stalin, the resulting Russo-German alliance might have been unbeatable, at least until the invention of the atomic bomb. World War II could have been a whole lot worse and perhaps the good guys, (or at least us) may not have won against a more competent Führer. Something to think about if you ever manage to acquire a time machine.

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TheElection of 1808

February 17, 2014

Thomas Jefferson’s second term was not nearly as smooth as his first. The war between Britain and France heated up again, and both nations seemed determined to draw the United States into the war. Once again both Britain and France seized American ships who traded with the other nation, ignoring America’s position as a neutral. The British began to impress American seamen into their navy, as they had while Washington and Adams were president. The United States had every right to declare war on one or both of the warring nations, but Jefferson professed to be a man of peace, and the still young nation was hardly capable of fighting one of the superpowers of the time, let alone both. Jefferson, instead, decided on a policy that would be called economic sanctions today. In December 1807, Congress established an embargo on trade with Britain and France, in the hope that their economies would be damaged enough to come to terms.

It didn’t work. It turned out that the still under developed American economy needed the manufactured goods of Europe more than Europe needed American raw materials. The only people the embargo hurt were American farmers who could no longer export grain and New England merchants who were ruined by the lack of trade. The Federalists were quick to attack the Democratic-Republicans on this policy, referring to it as the “Dambargo” and the embargo temporarily stopped the Federalists decline into irrelevance.

Under the circumstances, Thomas Jefferson had no desire to run for a third term. He had intended to follow Washington’s example all along and serve just two terms, and the increasingly tumultuous world situation led him to believe that the time was right for a younger man to take over. Jefferson had just the right younger man in mind, his friend Secretary of State James Madison. In addition to serving Jefferson as Secretary of State, James Madison had had a distinguished career in the Virginia legislature and the United States Congress. He had been one of Virginia’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention and his influence on the proceedings was great enough for Madison to be regarded as the father of the constitution. He along with Thomas Jefferson had founded the Democratic-Republican Party so he was a natural successor to Jefferson. The Democratic-Republican caucus had little trouble selecting James Madison as their nominee for president. For vice president they nominated George Clinton, the sitting vice president.

 

The Federalists went with their candidates from the previous election, Charles C.Pinckney and Rufus King.

The states held the election from November 4 to December 7 1808. In those days only six of the seventeen states selected their electors by a statewide popular vote, as is the way today. Four states were divided into electoral districts and seven states still had their electors appointed by the state legislature. The Federalists did better than they had in the 1804 election, but the Democratic-Republicans still won by a landslide. They won 112 electoral votes, winning every state outside of New England except for Delaware, although six delegates from New York voted for George Clinton for president. The Federalists won all of New England except for Vermont and won Delaware and a few votes elsewhere for a total of 47 electoral votes. The popular vote was 124,732 for Madison against 62,431 for Pinckney, although as I noted, not every state had a popular vote.

 

 

 

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Soylent Green

February 2, 2014

A little while back I made a reference to the movie Soylent Green while writing on a very different subject. I’ve been thinking about that movie ever since so I might as well write about it. It must be around twenty years since I last watched Soylent Green on video so I only remember the general plot. Soylent Green was based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room!, Make Room!. I’ve read the book more recently. The movie and book share the same setting, an overpopulated, polluted, dystopian world and mostly the same plot, a detective is investigating a murder in the impossible circumstances of a dying New York City. There are a number of differences, though. Make Room! is set in the year 1999 rather than 2022. I guess the producers of Soylent Green thought that adding another 23 years might make the setting more plausible. Soylent green is not made of people in the book, it is plankton. The murder that the Charlton Heston character is investigating had nothing to do with the corporation or with the environment. The victim was a mob boss and the only reason the police want his murderer is because the New York mafia is afraid that a rival organization is moving in and they are putting pressure on corrupt officials to learn if this is the case.

The book is a whole lot more depressing than the movie. Harry Harrison works to make the world of Make Room!a world of poverty and misery, without any hope for improvement. All people have to hope for is the world might end. In fact, one of the characters is a crazy hermit who expects the end to come when the year ends. When 1999 becomes the year 2000 without incident, he can only despair. Water and food are tightly rationed and diseases of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor are widespread in the United States. Cars, no longer working because there is no more gasoline, sit abandoned in parking lots, to be used as shelter by the large population of homeless people. Freight is transported by wagons pulled by people. Overpopulation is only getting worse, since the masses of permanently unemployed people have baby after baby to qualify for larger welfare benefits. It goes on and on.

There is, of course, a certain amount of preachiness throughout the descriptions of the miserable life of the future. At one point the Edward G. Robinson character discusses how the world came to be in such awful shape. He laments that if only people started to take overpopulation seriously about thirty years before (when the book was published), the world wouldn’t have been ruined.

These sort of sentiments were widespread throughout the sixties and seventies. This was the era of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence. It was widely accepted that unless major changes were made, the world of the future was going to be nightmarish. We couldn’t afford have the luxury of an affluent lifestyle, or even basic freedoms if we wanted to save the planet. This sort of messaging was always in the background while I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties and I believed it. I worried about global warming, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources. I considered myself an environmentalist.

What changed? Well, if you look around, you might happen to observe that the world was not an overpopulated dystopia in the year 1999 nor is it likely to become one by the year 2022. As I grew older, I couldn’t help noticing that none of the horrible scenarios predicted by the environmental alarmed ever seemed to actually occur. We always had just ten years to save the planet. When ten years elapsed, we still had just ten years to save the planet. I also actually read some environmentalist literature and even got a degree in Environmental Studies. I took what I call my environmentalist wacko class. That helped me to learn just how anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-science, anti-American, and anti-human many environmentalists actually are. I have since developed the deepest skepticism about environmentalist claims of doom and gloom. I am on to them.

This is why I am a global warming skeptic. There are some who have suggested that I should defer to the experts. I am told that ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that drastic action is needed right now. I am not impressed. I happen to possess a functioning memory and very little of what these people are saying is any different than what they were saying forty years ago. Their solution to the crises is the same: the masses must live like medieval serfs while an all powerful government of the elite decide what’s best for everyone.

At some point, you realize that the boy cried wolf is a liar, especially when he seems to have an agenda which involves getting the villagers to hand over wealth and power to the only boy who can save them from the wolf only he sees.

 

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Martin Luther King Day

January 20, 2014

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day dedicated to the man I believe is the most overrated individual in American History. I don’t wish to criticize King in this post, though he did have some failings, as do we all, nor do I wish to diminish King’s real contributions. I do want to point out that while Martin Luther King‘s birthday has become a national holiday, Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays have become conflated into President’s Day. Whatever King’s accomplishments, I cannot believe he was more important than Washington or Lincoln. I would also like to point out that there were a great many people involved in the Civil Rights movement, both Black and White and I think that too much emphasis on King often devalues their contributions.

 

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

He was a great orator though.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Polski: Thurgood Marshall

Polski: Thurgood Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

One person, in particular, who deserves far more attention than he has gotten would be Thurgood Marshall. He is best known today as being the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, but he had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and civil rights advocate. Marshall was the chief counsel for the NAACP and won a number of civil rights cases, most notably Brown vs. The Topeka Board of Education. President Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1967 where he served until his retirement in 1991.

 

In her book Demonic, Ann Coulter argued that Marshall played a far more effective role than King in securing civil rights for Blacks and she dismisses King as being a rabble-rouser and a leader of mobs. I wouldn’t go as far as Coulter and it should be kept in mind that she often makes controversial statements just for the sake of stirring people up. Still, I think that she is largely correct in her assertion. Thurgood Marshall worked within the system by taking segregation to court and showing its basic incompatibility with American legal and moral traditions. Martin Luther King did much the same with his speeches and protests except that to some extent he was outside the system. I think that in the end Marshall’s methods provided for more lasting change.

 

 

 

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Below Zero

January 6, 2014

As I write this, the temperature here in Madison Indiana is -4° Fahrenheit with wind chill down to around -27°. It is cold outside. It is even cooler than I would like inside, even with the heat on. To distract myself from this winter horror, I will try to think warm thoughts and write a little about temperature. What does it mean to say the temperature is 30 degrees or 100 degrees? What exactly are we measuring? Shouldn’t zero degrees be the coldest possible temperature?

People have known that some days are hotter or colder than other days since time immemorial. Before the invention of the thermometer, it was not possible to measure just how much hotter or colder. People could not quantify or measure temperature, except by personal perception, which is subjective.  A person might feel that it is getting warmer, but he could not be sure if the environment was actually getting warmer, or that he was simply feeling warmer, perhaps because he was exerting himself. Also, there was no way of determining just how warmer today was than yesterday. Notice that I am talking about temperature rather than heat. The two concepts are related but are not the same thing. In any substance the atoms and molecules that make up that substance are not standing still but are moving about. In a liquid or a gas, the atoms can move about freely, while in a solid, they are held in place but still vibrate back and forth. In a sense then, the temperature of an object is the average kinetic energy of the atoms in that object. Heat is defined by physicists as the transfer of thermal energy from a warmer body to a colder body. Heat is not measured by degrees but by joules or calories. ( The calories on food labels are actually kilocalories.)

Thermally_Agitated_Molecule

The basic principle on which the thermometer works was actually discovered in ancient times. Hero of Alexandria knew that air expanded or contracted based the temperature and invented a thermometer of sorts by placing a closed tube with its open end in a container of water. The water would move up or down in the tube according to the temperature. Galileo constructed a similar device, as did several other renaissance scientists. None of these devices had a scale, however, so it was still not possible to quantify temperature with them. They were also sensitive to air pressure.

The first thermometer with a scale was invented by either Francesco Sagredo or Santorio Santorio around 1611-1613.

Deutsch: Santorio Santorio. Français : Portrai...

In 1714, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented a thermometer which used mercury in a glass tube. Once it became possible to

English: Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit

English: Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

manufacture thermometers on a standard design, it was also possible to develop a standard scale. Fahrenheit developed such a scale in 1724. He used three points to calibrate his scale. The temperature of a mixture of water, ice, and ammonium chloride was designated as zero. The temperature of water just as ice began to form was set at 32 and human body temperature at exactly 96. Later, it was discovered that there are about 180 of Fahrenheit’s degrees between the melting and boiling points of water so the scale was calibrated to make exactly 180 degrees so that the boiling point of water on the Fahrenheit scale is 212°. The Fahrenheit Scale is the one most used in the United States and is still widely used in Britain and Canada.

In 1742 Anders Celsius developed a scale in which there were one hundred degrees between the melting and boiling points of water. Curiously, he designated the boiling point of water as 0 and the melting point as 100 so the temperature measurement got lower as it got hotter. The Celsius scale was reversed and adopted as part of the metric system. This scale, sometimes called centigrade, is used worldwide, especially by scientists. Conversion between the two scales is easy enough. Because there are 180 degrees Fahrenheit between the melting and boiling points of water, but only 100 degrees Celsius, each degree Fahrenheit is 9/5 of a degree Celsius. Since Fahrenheit has the melting point of water at 32°, to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius you subtract 32 and then multiply by 9/5. To convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, multiply by 5/9 and then add 32.

Anders Celsius

Anders Celsius

The coldest possible temperature, at which the atomic motion stops, is called absolute zero. This is -459.67° Fahrenheit or -273.15°. It is not actually possible to reach absolute zero, but scientists have come close. The lowest temperature ever recorded in a laboratory is around .oooooooo1 degrees Celsius. In 1848, the British physicist William Thompson, later to be Lord Kelvin, proposed a temperature scale using degrees Celsius which began at absolute zero. The Kelvin scale is slightly different from other scales in that it does not rely on the physical properties of any materials, being based on absolute zero. Temperatures in the Kelvin scale are measured in “Kelvins” rather than degrees so that you may say that the melting point of water is 273 K. The Kelvin scale is also extensively used by scientists, especially those who work with very low temperatures.

Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin

It’s not working. All of this writing about absolute zero is just making me feel colder.

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Saint Anselm of Canterbury and the Ontological Argument

January 3, 2014

Anselm of Canterbury was a medieval philosopher and theologian who lived from 1033 to 1109. He was a Benedictine monk and scholar who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 and held the post until his death. While Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was involved with the feud between the Church and Kings William II and Henry I over the issue of lay investiture. Somehow, during his continual conflicts with the English monarch and being exiled from England twice, Anselm managed to find the time to found the intellectual movement known as Scholasticism and to write a number of influential books. He used reason to make his arguments in defense of the Church’s doctrines rather than the authority of scripture or Church tradition and his motto was “faith seeking understanding”. He did not believe that reason could replace faith but that reason could enhance and expand on faith.

Anselm is most famous for conceiving of one of the oddest arguments for the existence of God in the history of philosophy, the ontological argument. The ontological argument goes something like this; imagine, if you will, the greatest being that could possibly exist. This being must, by definition, be God. Now, a being that did not exist could not be the greatest being that could exist because a being that did exist would be still greater. In other words, a perfect being that could be imagined but that did not exist would not really be a perfect being because it does not exist. Therefore, if you can imagine the greatest being that could possibly exist, such a being must exist. Here is the argument stated more formally in Wikipedia.

Anselm’s argument in Chapter 2 can be summarized as follows:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

At first glance, this seems to be a really silly argument. You could object by saying that you could imagine all sorts of imaginary beings such as unicorns. Imagining unicorns does not make them real. The answer to that is that no one imagines unicorns to be perfect beings.  The fact that unicorns do not exist in the real world is part of their imperfection. The strange thing about Anselm’s argument is that the longer you think about it , the harder it is to actually figure out where it is wrong. There seems to be a flaw somewhere, but where?

Philosophers have been arguing about  this argument for almost a thousand years and have not come to an agreement about it. As soon as one philosopher seems to refute it, another will answer his objections. Descartes, Leibnitz, and Godel all developed their own versions of the ontological argument. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant all rejected the argument. Bertrand Russell accepted the argument when he was young, but rejected it later on, although he admitted that it was hard to actually refute it.

Personally, I don’t find Anselm’s argument to be at all convincing. When I read about it, I feel as if I am watching a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There seems to be a trick there. It doesn’t seem to add up. I doubt very much if anyone was ever converted by this argument.

I am no Kant or Humes, but it occurs to me that this proof is somewhat inadequate in that it doesn’t reveal anything about the nature of God. The greatest being conceived is not necessarily the God of the Bible. He could be an impersonal force or a sort of World Soul as the pantheists believe. He could have created the world and then let it go its own way, as the deists believe. And, it occurs to be that there might be some disagreement over just what the greatest being that could be conceived would actually be like. Still, it is an interesting concept by an interesting man, and anyway, how can you conceive of a perfect being unless there is a perfect being to inspire that conception?

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NewYear’s Day

January 1, 2014

We didn’t do anything to celebrate the New Year. We didn’t watch the ball drop last night because we needed our sleep. I had to work. So, it was just another day today.

I have often felt that our calendar begins the New Year at a very bad time. New Year’s Day is only a week after Christmas so there is something of an anti-climax. The year begins in the dead of winter when days are still short and it is often cloudy, so the year begins at the most depressing time of the year. I think it would be better if the new year began at the end of one season and the beginning of another, preferably at the first day of spring, March 21. Beginning the year in the middle of a month might be awkward, so I would settle for either March 1 or April 1.

We start the new year on January 1, because our calendar, the Gregorian Calendar is ultimately based on the calendar used by the ancient Romans. Under the old Roman calendar, the new year began when the two consuls began their terms. This was on May 1 before 222 BC, March 15 from 222 BC until 153 BC, and then January 1. When Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, he kept January 1 as the first day of the year and we have been stuck with it ever since. Actually, during the Middle Ages, some countries in Europe did begin the year in spring.For example, England began the year on March 25. When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced and adopted throughout Europe, this regional diversity came to an end and everyone acknowledged January 1 as New Year’s Day, unfortunately.

Maybe I could start some sort of campaign to change the date of New Year’s. I could put up petitions on the Internet, lobby Congress, request the change from President Obama, even appeal to Pope Francis. Nah. It’s cold outside and dark and we’re expecting snow and it all seems like an awful amount of work. Maybe I’ll wait until spring.

I hope everyone has a wonderful 2014.


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