I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months–not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can’t serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There’s a moral here–but I think it’s too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can’t wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.
My son Bruno told me yesterday that he’d just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn’t even remembered that it was being filmed, but it’s a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that’s not the point I’m most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he’s a scientist himself–a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer–which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another–and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise–either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?
Just when you think that, just conceivably, you might be overdoing the anti-religious diatribes, you read something like the article I came across last Saturday in the New York Times, about a chap called Specialist Jeremy Hall who was systematically persecuted by his army superiors and fellow soldiers for his atheist views. Particularly odious was the pressure to pray with others when he declared his lack of belief (not to mention the physical threats he endured). Such, apparently, is the military mind (excuse the oxymoron). We know they are a conformist lot, but I had no idea that religious conformity is rigorously enforced, though not officially. Anyway, it made me think of yet another reason to deny God’s existence: surely if he did exist he’d come forward to denounce the actions performed in his name. I would, wouldn’t you? At least he’d send some sort of emissary, if not his son then at least some high-ranking celestial colleague or other–the angel Gabriel doesn’t seem to have been up to much for a while, lolling away up there. Send someone important to earth, put people straight about right and wrong, about what God really wants from us. But oh no, God just lets it all happen–even atrocities on a vast scale. A few words from him, convincingly stated, and we would know what’s what, but apparently he just can’t be bothered. More likely, the lack of divine corrective indicates a lack of divine existence. Specialist Hall, I’m with you.
As the Obama/Clinton wars drag on, I think of the malign effects of elections. We don’t have a pure participatory democracy, such as once obtained in Athens, no doubt for good reasons of practicality. We have a so-called representative democracy, which requires that we elect our leaders by something like popular vote. This requires those things dignified by the word “election”: money-driven, ad hominem, gotcha-loving, manipulative, mindfucking, demeaning, grotesque, corrupt, vicious, boring, fake, and so on. The candidates have to persuade the electorate to vote for them, and from this simple fact all the evils flow (combined with a full-blown capitalist-media complex). Imagine having to make yourself popular with everyone in order to be promoted in your job! I would never have got anywhere. I rather despise popularity, seeing it as the sure mark of a lack of integrity. Democracy is bad enough, but to combine it with the hunger for mass popularity is ten times worse. Down with elections!
The pope came and went. Two aspects of his proclamations stood out: on the one hand, his call for more authority and obedience, especially when it comes to the demands of the Catholic church; on the other hand, his condemnation of the sexual abuse inflicted by his priests. Did he not notice a tension between these two sentiments? He’s supposed to be logically astute, but it’s pretty obvious that the latter thing followed quite smoothly from the former: unquestioning obedience to the authority of the representatives of the church, i.e. priests, is what made possible the sexual abuse they so easily and revoltingly practiced on their “parishioners”. You would have thought the pope’s message might have been “Don’t blindly do what priests tell you!”. But then contradictions have never been much of an impediment to the skilled theologian (problem of evil and all that).
In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them–which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.
Now that really is a taboo word. You must never call anyone stupid! But aren’t some people just plain stupid? And isn’t stupidity the source of much of the world’s misery? I’d like to see a “Stupidity Science” movement in which the phenomenon is studied and taxonomized and explained–and remedied. I am certainly not a relativist about stupidity; I think stupidity is an objective trait. Maybe we all all stupid sometimes–but some people are stupid a lot of the time. Stupidity, as I mean it here, refers especially to the opinions and utterances of people who should know better. As the old saying goes: “It would only take a minute’s thought…but thought is a difficult thing and a minute is a long time.” In the end, of course, stupidity is about character, not IQ.
I was surprised the other day to discover that the “Founding Fathers” (silly phrase), especially John Adams, were quite opposed to democratic government, deeming it mob rule. The Constitution was mainly designed to protect individual rights from any form of tyranny, including majority rule. The reason was the stupidity and selfishness of the average person. This set me to wondering how much of the present state of politics and culture in the USA is the result of misguided democracy. Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there. In fact, there is no requirement in the US political system for a president to have even a minimum of education, or even to be able to read and write. Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.