Friday, December 21, 2012

Why does Joseph Forgive his Brothers?

This is the first of a series of posts on the portion of the Bible that Jews read weekly in synagogue.

This week is Vayigash, in which Joseph famously forgives his brothers. The basic story: Joseph, the arrogant favorite son, is cast into a pit by his eleven envious brothers, whence he's snatched by Midianite traders and sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, though, ascends to power in Egypt and ends up saving the kingdom from famine by means of an ingenious food-storage scheme. The brothers are later forced by famine to go to Egypt to find bread, where they find themselves at the mercy of an imperious Egyptian vizier. This vizier turns out to be Joseph, who explains that he's not angry at them; that, in fact, since he had the opportunity to save so many Egyptian lives, it's for the best that they hurled him into the pit.

This story is often presented as the paradigm of forgiveness: Joseph, having been left for dead by his brothers, finds the humanity not to have them cruelly and unusually punished. Nor, we learn, does he forgive them out of calculating deference to their father Jacob: there's no Godfather-type vengeance after Jacob's death. So it seems like this is an excellent example of humane and unadulterated forgiveness. But on a closer look, that's not what's going on here.

The ingredients of forgiveness as we ordinarily understand it are a) an accusation of wrongdoing and b) a release from hard feelings in spite of that wrongdoing. The classic example is God's forgiveness of sin: a Jew or Christian, before his sin is forgiven, needs to acknowledge the badness of that sin before being absolved in spite of that badness.

But this is the opposite case. Joseph doesn't forgive his brothers in spite of their wrongdoing: at least ostensibly, he forgives them because of it. The crucial verse (Gen. 45:5) is this:

וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה: כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

In other words, Joseph absolves his brothers because their wrongdoing gave him the opportunity to save human life. The brother's being absolved, then, comes not from unconditional love but from the happy result of their actions. So Joseph cannot in fact forgive his brothers, because there is nothing to forgive. They did nothing wrong that caused any real harm.

File:Joseph Forgives His Brothers.jpg
Don't be deceived!

I can think of two explanations for Joseph's faux-forgiveness. First, he is genuinely glad that God caused his abandonment and enslavement; so glad, in fact, that he doesn't even begrudge his brothers' betrayal in the slightest. I shouldn't speak for Joseph, but this seems to me unlikely. Even if it was for the best, it's hard to imagine Joseph's having no hard feelings whatsoever against his brothers.

Second, and I think more likely, Joseph actually forgives his brothers in the classical sense but covers it up with his consequentialist explanation. Though it seems strange, we actually do this all the time: "Don't worry that you kept me waiting! You gave me an opportunity to read some Plato." Or: "Thanks for breaking my vacuum cleaner! I had been meaning to replace it for a long time." We engage in this kind of cover-up for two reasons. First, there's a suspicion that we won't be trusted if we simply say that we forgive the other person. Because everyone is cynical, we feel compelled to provide an explanation for our benevolent behavior beyond simple human goodness. Second, it puts a person in an awkward position to accuse him of wrongdoing, even if we forgive him of it. So Joseph's pseudo-forgiveness may actually be a mask of real forgiveness.

Either way, it's clear that on the surface, Joseph cannot be said to forgive his brothers in the common sense of the word.

By the way, a much better example of forgiveness comes earlier in Genesis, when Esau forgives Jacob for robbing him of the birthright and of their father's blessing. Esau doesn't claim that anyone was better off because of Jacob and Rebecca's deceit. But he openly forgives his brother, because he loves him.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Men and Beasts at Midway Airport

I flew home to New York for Thanksgiving last Wednesday morning. My faith in mankind has been shaken.

Early in the morning, dense fog cloaking the airport made it impossible for planes to take off, and a dozen flights out of Chicago were canceled. Chaos ensued in Midway Airport. Travelers snarled in frustration as they stood impotently in endless lines. Parents snapped at their whining children. College students yelled nervously on their cellphones at invisible parents.
Meanwhile, the degree to which each traveler lost concern for everyone else at the airport was unnerving. People cut each other off in line. Middle-aged businessmen in suits swore at their customer-service representatives. When I was standing at the front of one particularly long line, a young woman walked up to the agent behind the desk. “Excuse me,” said the woman in a trembling, panicked voice. “I’ve been waiting here for half an hour, and I need to rebook my flight. I’m not in line, but can you help me now? Like, before all these people?” The line grumbled in frustration at her, and I confess to being ticked off myself. If I’d had a case to plead against her, I would have pled it.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There was plenty of amiability and commiseration, too. But those moments of solidarity and friendly chatting seemed only to arise where there was no real point of conflict between the travelers involved. I spent half an hour in line with one friendly thirty-year-old man, talking with him sympathetically about rebooking our flights which had been canceled. When we got to the front of the line twenty minutes later, he cut me off with a mumbled, gruff excuse.

I conclude from the evidence that in the absence of enforced social standards, standards of civility simply melted away. The relative anonymity of airport travel and the benefits to be reaped from exploiting other people were extremely corrosive to people’s moral compasses. It seems like without the fear of God and the Leviathan, there’s room for a lot of human evil. Or at least a lot of inconsiderateness. 

That’s not to say that these were bad people at the airport. To the contrary, everyone there had equal, legitimate interests: to get home as fast as possible to the family that he or she loved. The problem was that those equal interests conflicted with each other, and people’s senses of civility were not strong enough to withstand the conflict. But as thinkers from Kant to the illustrious Dennis Prager have pointed out, virtue only counts when it it’s exercised in opposition to natural feeling. You can get a much better sense of someone’s morality from their behavior at the airport than their behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

I do acknowledge that I am succumbing to a sampling bias here. People who lost their civility were more likely to make a scene and to be noticed by me. But I’m not arguing that everyone descended into a beast-like state: just that enough people did to make the experience unbearable for everyone else.

So the prospects for human beings are not uniformly bleak. There is room for peace among men: but only if they are either terrified of punishment or if conflict between them is removed.

Don’t even think about the chat-’n’-cut.
(Actually, the scene in the airport was closer to Locke’s state of nature than Hobbes’s. Hobbes posits a “war of all against all” in which men will exploit every chance they can get to steal each other’s property. To Locke, conflict only arises when men’s interests overlap—they have no inherent interest in seizing as much as they can from everyone else, only in enforcing their individual titles to their own property.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Vote?

Every citizen should vote, but most arguments for voting are baseless. Let's purge the dross from the gold.

First, from a consequentialist perspective, your vote is next to meaningless. Even if you live in Ohio or Nevada, the odds that one vote will decide the presidential election are practically nil. Your vote will not substantially help your candidate to win. So as long as you're concerned with actually making a positive difference in the world, why not, as my friend likes to say, work professionally for the same amount of time and donate the money to the Against Malaria Foundation? You could save a child's life with a cheap mosquito net instead of smearing ink onto a tiny oval and hoping that it'll marginally help a marginally better politician into office.

There are other utilitarian justifications for voting; too many, too wrong, and too boring to be enumerated fully. But here are two:
  • "Your vote will send a message." It won't. You could vote for Barack Obama after a painstaking study of his handling of the Benghazi crisis, but if the public pays any attention at all to your vote, it will only get the message that you voted for the Democrat. Also, the public won't pay attention to your vote. 
  • "Voting sets an example for other people, and encourages them to vote." So why not tell everyone you're voting, and then read a good book in the confines of the voting booth?
There's only one good utilitarian argument that I've heard for voting. "If I enjoy voting, and I get more utility from voting than from getting paid at my job, why not do it?" First of all, most people, whether they know it or not, prefer spending a day with their family than with the poll-workers in an elementary-school gymnasium. Second, as I mentioned above, as long as you're concerned with maximizing utility, you should work for the sake of African children, not egoistically indulge in sentimentalist patriotism. Most basically, the question that we're asking isn't: why do people vote? but: should I vote? So the argument from personal utility can't persuade anyone who hasn't already made up his mind to vote.

So much for consequentialism. What about a duty to our ancestors? Since revolutionary patriots, southern civil-rights activists, and female suffragists all took great risks to win us the right to republican enfranchisement, we're slighting them if we spurn their gift to us. I personally find this argument very appealing, but I also recognize that it's hard to formalize it into a moral obligation. At the least, it's not enough by itself to justify voting. After all, there are plenty of causes that our ancestors fought and died for that we despise.
Look what's behind Dr. King!
 (My grandmother's photograph.)
Unfortunately, we're going to have to resort to a pre-1970s way of thinking in order to justify voting. Go home unfed, ye econ majors and relativists!

Voting is simply part of being a decent citizen. Whether by the grace of God or our own determination, we live on a continent where we have the power to choose our own government. And as intelligent, probing people, it's on us to use our prudence to collectively make sure that that government is responsible. This isn't a utilitarian responsibility; we shouldn't be under any illusions that our marginal voice will actually improve any policy. Nor is it a formally moral responsibility; it's still far more important that we give to charity. It's the kind of responsibility that we might have on a camping trip (like this one) to wash the dishes. Everything will be fine if we don't, and no one will mind, either; but if no one does it, we'll end up with a worse result. The proper response to this tragedy of the commons is to act responsibly. Call it the "don't be a cynical cretin" rule.

What if neither candidate is responsible? Then make the best of it.

We might call this, as some have, a Kantian approach: if no one voted, or if substantially fewer citizens voted for responsible candidates, the country would be worse for it. So be it, but although he's helpful in everyday situations like this, I don't think that anyone outside of a university has thought along Kantian lines in a century. I think we can justify voting without discussing the Categorical Imperative.

A better writer than me has stated this principle better. Or, to quote one of my favorite documents:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Unfortunately, the casuistry of the last half-century has destroyed this kind of thinking. Alas!

Friday, November 2, 2012

On the Perverseness of Umpirical Realism

On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga almost threw a perfect game. By the end of the top of the ninth inning, Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers*, had already retired twenty-six batters. But when Jason Donald, a batter for the Indians, came up to bat, he hit a ground ball and dashed for first. The ball made it to the first baseman before he did, but Jim Joyce, the umpire, declared Donald safe. The hit went to the Indians, and Galarraga lost his perfect game.

We're left with two questions. First, did Galarraga throw a perfect game? Second, can we call Joyce to task for blowing the call?

No and no.

That there could be any doubt on this question speaks to the pervasiveness of umpirical realism: a philosophy that is as wrongheaded as it is common. According to this school of thought, the relevant fact in deciding the play was whether or not Donald made it to first. The umpire was only acting as a reporter: he was closest to the play when it happened, so he was entrusted to give an accurate account of it. And since instant replay has since made it blindingly obvious that Donald touched the base after the catch, Joyce's call was illegitimate. He failed in the trust placed in him to make the right call. Moreover, the play would likely have been decided correctly if someone else had been the first-base umpire that evening.

But there is another, better way of thinking about umpires. The only reason that umpires are on the field in the first place is to make calls that render disputes between the teams impossible. In the majority of informal games, umpires are not necessary, because the teams have enough goodwill towards each other to be able to adjudicate disputes without a moderator. But when the stakes are higher, and the players more competitive, the game cannot proceed without an impartial moderator to give swift judgment calls. It is not essential that these calls reflect what actually happened: only that they be respected by both teams. The purpose of umpiredom is thus not to make careful scientific analyses of the past trajectories of rubber balls. Who cares about that? The point is to enable an exciting and smooth game. So the relevant fact is not whether or not Galarraga beat the throw; it's whether or not Joyce said he did.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as a bad call—a call that does not reflect the facts on the field. Umpiredom is a craft, and in every craft there are good and bad craftsmen. But a bad call is not an illegitimate call, and it should be given no less respect by fans and players. If the World Umpires Association or Major League Baseball wants to punish umpires whose calls don't correspond to real plays, that's their prerogative: the MLB can hire anyone it wants. I might also fire a potter whose pots I don't like. I won't tell him, though, that his pots are not legitimate pots. Neither will I refuse to use them if they're capable of holding flesh.
plato and aristotle 237x300 Aristotle vs. Plato view of ‘substance’
The man on the left is a lunatic subscriber to the notion that umpires' decisions must correspond to real events in the past. The man on the right is the founder of Western Philosophy.

I want to make one more point about the role of umpires: they're more judge than juryman. An umpire's job is to examine the facts as they appear to him, and then to issue a ruling designed both to give a fair outcome for the teams and to set a precedent that later umpires and players can rely on. There is theoretically no limit on the calls that he can make, but as a judge within a long tradition, he can be expected to follow certain well-established precedents. (If players know that they are almost certain to be ruled out if they're beaten by the throw, they can always play the game with that understanding in mind. Exertion within predictable rules is what makes almost all sports exciting.)

We might object that the presence of a rulebook in the Major Leagues limits umpires' arbitrary authority to make calls. According to this argument, the umpire's job is solely to determine matters of fact as they relate to fixed, clear rules. But this objection misunderstands the nature of the rulebook. The rulebook is a codification that describes the accumulated precedents that umpires have set over the years. It does not command umpires to rule a certain way in each case. So umpires do and should have complete authority in every call they make, limited only by a long tradition of precedent and the danger that they'll lose public support as judges if they stray too far from traditional norms. In other words, if an umpire wants to rule that a batter who gets tagged off the plate is safe, he can, but he'd better be able to give a good reason for that decision.

If you agree with me on this point, you belong to an ancient and noble Anglo-American tradition stretching aeons into the past. If you don't, you're in the company of Napoleon and the Louisianans. Make your choice.

*Correction: Galarraga was a pitcher for the Tigers, not the Indians. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Augustine and Passive Religion

I was sitting in class last winter and stumbled on this passage from Augustine's Confessions. It speaks to a certain attitude to religion that, while it's not mine, I find extremely compelling. Let me try to explain why.

I loved you late! O beauty so ancient and so new, I loved you late! for when you were within I was in the open, and there I sought you. ... You were with me, but I was not with you...
You called and cried, and broke my deafness: you were scintillating and resplendent, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.
(Confessions, Book X, my translation.)

What strikes me most here is Augustine's passivity. Augustine does not strain to hear God's voice: it overwhelms him. He does not look for God's peace on his own: God inflames him first and makes him long for it. In short, Augustine had no influence in his own conversion: it was all the result of God's grace, not his own free choice.

(To give some context, in his work On Grace and Free Will Augustine contends that free will cannot redeem mankind. God's grace is not the result of any merit in mankind, and to deny that is to fall into the Pelagian Heresy.)

I reject Augustine's passivity as a general philosophy of religion, because it makes more sense to describe most religious experience as conscious striving. I don't know what it would be like to be continually compelled to be a religious person, and I also doubt that most religious people interpret their day-to-day experiences the same way that Augustine does. A person doesn't get up at six thirty every morning to pray because God fills him with ardor and forces him to. He does it because he grits his teeth and commits himself to it.

On the other hand, Augustine's passivity is an example of religion in its purest and most radical form. The most vivid religious experiences do feel utterly passive, because they're based on transcendent experiences that have nothing to do with us as individuals. Was Moses prepared to see the burning bush? Does Levin gain insight because he strives for it? When I see a starry night over a lake, I don't pretend to create the sense of awe that I feel. Creation is intrinsically wonderful, and there's nothing we can do to stop ourselves from being struck with awe when we encounter it.

So in their day-to-day lives, religious people make the choice to be religious. In that respect religion is like most other aspects of our lives; morality, for example, is also the result of conscious choice. But our purest experiences of the divine, as Augustine suggests, are passive.

(Another thing that strikes me about this passage is the eroticism of Augustine's experience of God. Augustine renounces women and physical pleasure, and takes God's love as his substitute. As a replacement, it gets framed in the same terms as his old love.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Witch-Burning: A Question of Tolerance?

In this post, I don't mean "witch" to refer to a Wiccan, but to someone who actually puts curses on virgins, poisons wells, and so on. I mean no offense to neo-Pagans, precisely because they don't do any of these things.

I am a firm supporter of burning witches, and I refuse to tolerate them. Let me explain.

The Salem witch-trials seem to be obvious evidence of the religious intolerance of the Puritans. Their determination to hang witches marks them as narrow-minded and religiously tyrannical, and gives us cause to triumphantly dismantle the myth that our country is founded on religious freedom.

This intolerance wasn't restricted to small-town New England: a horrific and often-forgotten part of our history is the witch-hunt that swept Europe in the Early Modern period. Over two centuries, tens of thousands of innocent people were put to death for witchcraft. And in modern Africa, innumerable innocent men and women have been murdered, "exorcised", and thrown out of their homes for allegedly committing witchcraft. Clearly, narrow-mindedness has had deadly consequences.

But the solution to this is not to tolerate witchcraft, because the problem is not, in fact, a lack of tolerance. It's a problem of bad science. There's no such thing as witchcraft, after all, so anyone who's ever been put to death for witchcraft has been innocent. That's not to say, though, that if someone had actually committed the crime she was accused of, she wouldn't have deserved the punishment. That's why I can't say in good conscience that I tolerate witchcraft, because if I ever met a real witch, I would want her dead. But witches don't exist, so witch-trials shouldn't either.

The sign doesn't say, "witches deserve equal treatment."
Accordingly, much of the historical opposition to witch-trials has appropriately come in the form of denying the existence of witchcraft, not in opposing witch-burnings in principle. As Increase Mather put it, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned." Still, to Mather, those ten suspected witches deserved the fate that they escaped. Similarly, Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom, not because he thought that the Sodomites deserved mercy, but because he thought that there actually were good people in the city. (For a similar reason, I oppose the death penalty only on the grounds that it's nearly impossible to prove guilt to what I think is the required standard. That doesn't mean a murderer doesn't deserve to die.)

The same goes for metaphorical witch-hunts. The problem with McCarthyism, for instance, is not that it was intolerant of Communists. Citizens who actively promoted the overthrow of the government, I think, actually did deserve to be socially ostracized, even if legal punishment was unconstitutional; and spies who turned secrets over to the Soviets deserved to be executed.
Rather, anti-Communist programs were unjust insofar as they ignored evidence and accused innocent people of crimes that they didn't commit. If McCarthy had used proper standards of evidence and been more than occasionally and accidentally right, he would have been justified.

When, then, is tolerance appropriate? We should tolerate people as long as we don't have a moral objection to their conduct. Sacrificial slaughter, even though it seems weird to outsiders, is something that we ought to get over, at least as long as we kill cows in slaughterhouses. Female genital mutilation, by contrast, should not be tolerated, because of its horrible effect on its victims' lives. So tolerance should only extend to differences that, crucially, do not carry moral weight. We should tolerate Wiccans but not witches.

In short: if we're falsely accusing people of immoral actions, the solution is not to tolerate the action but to stop believing the accusation.

Thanks to my brother Ben for giving me the inspiration for this post.

(By the way, a similar principle holds in Shylock's case. As I mentioned in my last post, if we want to take a stand against anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice, we should not say "Shylock's evil is an understandable response to oppression" but "almost no Jews are like Shylock.")

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Shylock Problem

(Even though I disagree with her conclusion, this article by Paula Marantz Cohen gave me the idea for this post.)

So spake the Fiend, and with necessitie, The Tyrants plea, excus'd his devilish deeds. (Paradise Lost, IV.393–4)

I'm going to talk this week about the humanized villain, which is a troubling trope if we take it seriously enough. Here are a couple examples (1):

1. As he prepares to rape the maiden Pamina, the demonic Monostatos of Mozart's Magic Flute makes this plea to the audience:

Ist mir denn kein Herz gegeben? bin ich nicht von Fleisch und Blut? 
Am I not endowed with a heart? am I not made of flesh and blood?

2. More famously, Shylock makes this defense at his trial in the Merchant of Venice:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? (MV III.i)

There are two mistakes that we can make when we're faced with an appeal like this. I'll use the Merchant of Venice as a test case for both.

First, we can treat it as a merely rhetorical device. Even if villains are utterly inhuman, they still stand to benefit from coming off otherwise. Caliban, for instance, who's clearly a subhuman creature, attempts to justify himself at the beginning of the Tempest by proclaiming his human faculties.
This reading is a neat solution to the Shylock problem, but it has an obvious pitfall: in many cases (the Tempest aside) the villains actually do have human characteristics, and humanity is not just an artifice that they employ to vindicate themselves. Shylock is telling the truth: his humanity is real, and it is a real problem for us.
Luckily, this breed of misinterpretation isn't so common. I wonder why!

A more severe mistake, but more common in proportion, is to succumb to these characters' arguments: by this kind of reading, Shylock, by virtue of his humanity, should elicit at least a little sympathy and understanding. For an example, read this article by James O'Rourke, or—if you have an adamantine stomach—this essay by Kenneth Gross. Or just mention the word Shylock in mixed company and see what happens.
My eleventh-grade Shakespeare class seemed intent on getting one form of this interpretation across: Shylock is Shakespeare's vehicle for launching an attack against the Christian establishment that attempts to make him an "other" and deny his humanity. Even if it wasn't Shakespeare's intent, my teacher insinuated, this is still the most useful way of understanding the play.
This absolute position is only the strongest form of this reading; its more pervasive forms are weaker and more insidious. "Shylock, even though he's the villain, is a human being who deserves to be understood, if not justified." "The trial scene says more about the Christians than it does about Shylock." "Shylock tests the limits of Venetian society's tolerance (2)." Taking Shylock's humanity to be evidence of his justifiability is now so common that anyone who says anything to the contrary is not met with refutation but with a knowing smile.

Come on. We're dealing with a character who would willingly torture his enemy to death on comically legalistic grounds, who hates his own daughter, and who seemingly lives his life on the principle of avarice.  Of course, Shylock embodies an anti-Semitic stereotype that we despise, but that shouldn't force us to interpret the play in a way that perverts its moral structure. (I have a feeling that if Iago had been Jewish or African, critics would race to make excuses for him.) If we don't like Shakespeare's anti-Semitic stereotyping, we should take issue with the suggestion that Jews are like Shylock, not claim that it's okay to do what Shylock does. Shylock is an "other," but he's also a despicable character who understandably makes the play's heroes sick.

In short, we can't accept either that Shylock's humanity makes him less evil or that his evil makes him less human. Where does this leave us? We have a glimpse of what actually makes him such a disturbing character: he's both human and vicious. In the moral world of The Merchant of Venice and The Magic Flute, there's nothing about being human that prevents us from being perverse and wicked to the core.

And this doesn't just go for art; in fact, it's a lesson that applies all the more to our own lives. In the real world, there are no monsters, but that doesn't mean there's no evil.


(1). Both of the examples I've discussed are examples of vicious stereotyping—Shylock, for obvious reasons, and Monostatos, because he used to be played in blackface. 
In the case of the Merchant of Venice, I think that our response to this should not be to attempt understand the Merchant of Venice according to our modern worldview. That's a denial of art's capacity to communicate ideas across centuries relatively intact. Still less, though, should we indulge in the stereotype in a show of sophistication. Rather, we should either change the play and efface the elements that we find objectionable or—if we take the play more seriously—not show the Merchant of Venice at all.
In the case of the Magic Flute, our job is easier. The story of the opera is incidental enough to the music that there's not much damage done when we make the kind of modification that might be unwarranted with Shakespeare. A production of the Magic Flute that I saw in January made Monostatos into a green, lovable gremlin. Poof!

(2). This last argument has never made any sense to me. Why in the world would we expect any society to tolerate a potential murderer? I suppose that Timothy McVeigh tested the limits of our tolerance, too.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Just a Little Higher!" On The Return of the Jedi

This post is a series of thoughts on Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. 

I. Sarlacc Ethics.

C-3PO explains in Jabba’s palace that the sarlacc digests its victims over a thousand-year period of unimaginable suffering. If this is true, then Luke and Han act reprehensibly when they glibly allow bounty hunters to roll into its maw instead of shooting them. On the other hand, the sarlacc probably enjoys eating bounty hunters more than they dislike it. So from a utilitarian perspective, it’s actually fine. (There are other considerations to take into account—Tatooinians, for example, might not like living on a planet where sarlacci can devour people with impunity. The sarlacc, though, gets such intense pleasure from eating that we don’t need worry about this objection.)

II. Racism.

Jabba’s palace is Orientalist and the Ewoks are insulting to indigenous people of the Amazon. My Art History class has made me too sick of critical theory to go into this further.

III. Yoda Will Always Be with You.

One of my favorite moments in any movie, almost an par with this, is this moment, when Obi Wan first appears to Luke on Dagobah after Yoda dies. The orchestra’s crescendo that suddenly cuts off as Obi Wan approaches is tingle-inducing.

IV. The Forest Moon of Endor.
One of the most well known grammatical disputes in Star Wars is this: is “the Forest Moon of Endor” a partitive or possessive genitive?
There are two possibilities for the identity of the home of the Ewoks.

  1. (Partitive genitive.) It’s a forested moon called Endor. Thus, “the Forest Moon of Endor” is the same construction as “the great state of Maine” or “the frigid, godforsaken city of Iqaluit.”
  2. (Possessive genitive.) It’s a forested satellite of the planet Endor, and not itself named Endor. This reading understands “the forest moon of Endor” to be akin to “the two moons of Mars” or “the blood-spattered armor of Mars.”
Personally, I’m sympathetic to the first reading, because I think it would be bizarre for George Lucas to have left the central stage of the movie’s action unnamed. Nevertheless, there are good, honest people on both sides of the debate, so let’s pause before we haul out the fire, wood, and oil.

V. Darth Vader’s Redemption

One of the most commonly repeated lines about the movie is that Darth Vader “redeems himself” when he saves Luke by hurling the Emperor into a conveniently placed molten pit. I used to believe this too, until I realized that it it’s a facile platitude. Redemption is impossible for Darth Vader. If billions of murdered Alderaanians had risen from the dead and offered their sincere pardon, then it might have been possible for Vader to die with a clean conscience. Saving one man’s life who happens to be his son isn’t enough to cut it. The only people who could have redeemed Vader—if human beings can redeem other human beings at all, which is debatable—are dead by the time of Episode VI.

This speaks to a general moral point: I don’t think that redemption is something that we can have any knowledge about in the first place. How is it possible for us tell whether or not someone receives the pardon of the universe? God knows, not us.

This isn’t to say that Vader’s saving Luke isn’t significant. Luke is right, in spite of Leia’s insistence to the contrary, that there is some good in him. The operative word, of course, is some. At the very end of the movie, Luke consciously lays his father on his pyre with his mask back on. Despite his heroism, in the end Vader’s still a murderer.

VI. The Remastered Version.

I  don’t have too much nostalgia for the old VHS version of Star Wars. That said, I have a couple qualms with the revisions from the original. First of all, turning the Ewok’s simple chant at the end of the movie into a tremendous intergalactic celebration is like cutting out the Song at the Sea from Exodus and replacing it with this. Also, as my friend pointed out, giving the sarlacc digital tentacles and a beak puts a damper on its Freudian symbolism. That might be a good thing—the sarlacc scene alone is probably responsible for a host of lifelong male bachelors who saw it as kids.

VII. Is Luke tempted?

It’s hard to tell whether Luke is actually tempted by the Emperor to go over to the Dark Side. He attacks Vader in a rage, but it’s left unclear whether that’s just a lapse of self-possession or an ominous sign of weakness. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on Luke’s character, so it’s a bit frustrating that the movie leaves it ambiguous. We don’t know, after all, whether to cheer or to nod understandingly when Luke tosses away his lightsaber in front of the Emperor.

That’s not all, but I’m done for now. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, and its sound effects and dialogue are firmly embedded into my mind. It’s a fresh movie every time, though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For Grammars Sake: Abolish the Possessive Apostrophe

Possessive nouns are declined free, and everywhere they are in apostrophes. How did this happen? I do not know. Why does it need to be corrected? I think I can answer this question.

English has three cases, or forms that nouns can take depending on their role in a sentence: subjective, objective, and possessive. There’s almost no difference in form between the subjective and objective cases: what difference there is is mostly restricted to pronouns. Hence: he (subjective) tasted his tongue sandwich, but not before it tasted him (objective). But Mary milked the cow and the cow licked Mary: for most nouns, the English case system has regrettably withered away almost entirely.
Not so, thankfully, for the possessive case. Almost all nouns in English still take an s when they refer to objects or people that possess others: consider the king’s taster, Plato’s lunacy, and my brother’s keeper. But as these examples make clear, the s isn’t just appended to its noun, as we might expect. An apostrophe inexplicably intervenes. I say inexplicably, because this use of the apostrophe is by any standard unwarranted. In almost all of its other uses, the apostrophe is a stand-in for a letters that have been omitted: I can’t come to the club because my dog’s decided to chew my checker’d coat. In the case of possessive nouns, there is no letter to leave out, and hence no need for an apostrophe. There’s no logical reason that François Hollande is France’s president and not Frances; that Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and not Lou Gehrigs.

Perhaps we English speakers are so squeamish about our ancient Germanic case system that we’ve decided to sanitize it. Rather than let our nouns go forth with naked esses, proclaiming joyfully and innocently their full-hearted allegiance to the possessive case, we nervously separate them from their rightful endings out of pale timidity. Better, after all, to give the impression that the s is an unnatural addition to the noun-stem, that it’s an innocuous result of schoolroom pedantry. But our prudery has a cost: in our refusal to face the unbearable, irresistible pleasure of the unsullied cases, we’ve doused the blazing furnaces of our souls with a shower of tiny drops of ink. The stout-hearted followers of King Harold, by contrast, surely went to their doom at Hastings shouting their genitive battle-cries in terrible grammatical purity. Weop eal gesceaft, cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Cyninges!

As for the factual, historical origin of the apostrophe, a bumbling though well-meaning printer probably decided it would be a good idea around the year 1750, and no one bothered to correct his mistake.

There are, I concede, some useful functions of the possessive apostrophe. For one, it helps distinguish the schoolboy’s chair from the schoolboys’; the hart’s longing for the stream from the harts’ extermination during hunting season. This, though, is a trivial advantage. If it’s not clear from context that the writer intends the plural form of the noun, the writer wrote a bad sentence.

In any case, the Germans, who also mark their possessive case with an s, have got along without the possessive apostrophe for at least a century. They do fine. More than fine—the Germans enjoy just as much of the old pleasure of the Proto-Germanic case system as the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes did. Granted, German doesn’t pluralize its nouns with an s as much as we do, so there’s less room for ambiguity. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the vault of heaven would not collapse if we followed suit.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, in an inspiring display of stern courage, has already gotten the message: in 1894, it forbade the use of the possessive apostrophe in all domestic place names, with a few regrettable exceptions. (See chapter V of this list of guidelines.)

Abolition, then, is both desirable and possible. The last remnant of our stark and strangely beautiful case system is drowning in a pit of black, writhing maggots. Who is on orthographys side? let him come unto me.