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American Exceptionalism – Myth or Reality?

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The idea of American exceptionalism is a hotly-debated topic, and there are valid arguments on both sides. It was first coined by de Tocqueville, and then widely adopted by other statesmen and analysts of the American experience, so much so that it had become shorthand, an encapsulation of America's uniqueness.

De Tocqueville lists five values which he deemed as having been crucial to America’s success, and these are: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. In de Tocqueville’s mind, those qualities defined what he called “the American Creed,” indicative of the absence of feudal and hierarchical structures in such governmental entities as monarchies and aristocracies, England included.

There have been many additions since to this list political virtues in de Tocqueville’s treatise, the idea of meritocracy (and, therefore, of the abolition of class barriers) being the most important; but that was just an icing on the cake if you ask me. Needless to say, the idea of American exceptionalism has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche to become the modus operandi, the motive, and the explanation of America’s superiority in all matters ranging from cultural dominance to military might.

It’s not too far-fetched to assume that the term “exceptionalism” is at the root of the controversy, because “exceptionalism” implies a certain uniqueness, a one-of-a-kind type of experience, the absolute. Well, let me dispel this notion by citing from Seymor Martin Lipset  "Exceptional" in this context is to be interpreted as ". . . qualitatively different from all other countries."

That’s as neutral a definition as I can think of, relatively speaking value-neutral and inoffensive. And I tried to buttress this idea by arguing for a relative (or comparative) use of the term rather than an absolute one, for a temporal and history-bound kind of excellence rather than any singular, never-to-be replicated uniqueness, for the here-and-now and the concrete rather than the eternal abstract. Well, apparently these nuances have been lost on the opposition, so let me try again.

Throughout history, there have always been centers of civilization and culture: the ancient Greece during the Periclean era; Rome when it was still a Republic or even under Augustus; the Italian city-states, Florence (which gave us Dante) and Venice (the Medicis), which both gave rise to international trade, commerce and banking, and spearheaded the Renaissance; the Elizabethan age, or “the Golden Age” as some have called it, and whose most vocal exponent was Shakespeare; France under Le Roi Soleil, along with Moliere, Corneille and Racine; France again, during the Age of Enlightenment and the philosophes; and then the British Empire during and after the Industrial Revolution.

For all of the hardships that had come with the times, there was also an unprecedented flourishing of culture, arts, and political philosophy: John Stewart Mill and George Bernard Shaw, Keats and Shelley, Robert Owen and the emancipation movement, Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Oscar Wilde, and the Fabians. It was a glorious age, or in Charles Dickens’ memorable phrase, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It’s no different with America, I daresay, except that it’s “new.” So perhaps therein lies the stumbling block because it’s always more difficult to acknowledge greatness in our contemporaries than in the ancients. But let’s try nonetheless. Let’s enumerate some of her achievements, her unprecedented successes, the virtues which made her the leader that she was and is. And here, I can think of no better way to proceed than to look at her literature, never mind the causes.

Perhaps no other aspect of culture reveals better the nation’s potential, its hopes, aspirations and dreams, its birth pangs, its stresses, strains and fissures, its successes and failures, than its literature does; and indeed, American literature for the past hundred years or so has definitely been more dynamic, more vibrant, more energetic and comprehensive than any literary output from around the globe.

Consider. From the Wild West experience and the gold rush to Al Capone and the Prohibition era; from the antebellum South and the carpetbaggers to the industrial North and the life in the big city; from the Jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the life of the rich and famous to the horrid conditions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; from the Great Depression so brilliantly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath to a small-town mindset in Peyton Place; from the brilliant crop of Southern, regional writers to black humor and moblike mentality in The Day of the Locust or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; from   Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Color Purple and To Kill a Mockingbird; from Jack London and Theodore Dreiser to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal — all these speak volumes to the breath and the intensity of the American experience. No other country on earth could possibly produce literature so rich and in such quantity as America had because no other country offered their novelists such an incredible wealth of human experience – ever new, ever happening, ever on the cutting edge. That’s the raw material from which the novelist draws his or her inspiration, and the literature is but a mirror.

Why in America? you might ask. I suppose, there are as many explanations as there are people, but in my mind it all comes down to the following: it was the most open society ever known to humankind; and with that openness, there had come a complete breakdown of all traditions because no sooner were they made, they were liable to be broken.

The very influx of peoples from all parts of the globe — the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Norwegians, the Poles (not to mention all those who’ve been abducted (like the Chinese), coupled besides with the Native Americans and the blacks) — all that had made for the most colorful mix of humanity ever assembled in one place they would eventually call home. Only Alexander the Great had a dream that had approximated and foretold of the far distant future – I call it “America” – but it was short-lived and he died prematurely, before realizing the implications. Well, ours is his dream come true, the best and the worst of times.

And indeed! You can only expect the best and the worst when you put together such a mix of unruly, ethnically-diverse and contrary peoples at shoulder’s length. The question is – and that's the miracle of it all! – what held them together rather than tear them apart and be at one another’s throat? The American Dream is what I say, the one chance in a thousand. The everlasting promise!

Say what you will, but the idea of the melting pot encapsulates the American experience – from spirituals to rock and roll and the blues, from Hollywood and Wall Street to Main Street and Saturday night, from hot rods and drag racing to taverns and soda fountains. James Dean, Elvis Presley, Luis Armstrong, John Travolta, and yes, Marilyn Monroe, too! They’ll al icons. America is all about icons. Darn it, we’ve invented the icon; and once we have, the world became an oyster.

And it’s been so ever since. The movies, Andy Warhol, pop culture, counter-culture and rhythm & blues, the Dairy Queen and McDonalds, the ugly American and the Snow White, Walt Disney and Stephen King, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and David Lynch. And don’t forget Microsoft. The whole world was waiting and salivating. Only America could provide it with excitement enough, with toys and diversions and all manner of escaping the ugly reality while entertaining the illusion that life could be beautiful again and worth living, if only for the moment, a short span, as short as the picture on your TV screen.

That’s how symbols and icons of culture get transferred for better or worse — from the center outwards. And then, there is the centripetal pull in the opposite direction, whereby whatever’s outside is drawn inwards, as if by a magnet. I dare you to contradict me.

I suppose we could all sit here and argue about America’s greatness until the cows come home. You have your ideas and I have mine. But let me tell you, I think it’s real and undeniable. The whole world is watching and following suit. How we turn, what decisions we’ll make, which direction we’ll end up to be going, so will the rest of humanity.

I’ve been accused of extreme patriotism and of the eventuality that love of my country had blinded me from seeing things as they truly are; that baseball and our other pastimes have distorted my vision; that my belief in the American way of life rests on false premises, or at least that it made me ignore our many faults.

Let me assure you, nothing is further from the truth. As far as I can see, it’s an objective appraisal of our past, our present, and hopefully, our future as well — as objective, I daresay, as the verdict that will be accorded us some day by future historians. Many powers in our historical past have earned the epithet of greatness. Well, America is one of them.

Which brings me to the natural connection between greatness and power. Natural, I say, because it’s a necessary one as well. And here, too, I’ve been criticized at length because power — in human hands at least — doesn’t come without abuses. But whereas it’s true that the latter   can’t be helped, it’s also true that the two are inseparable: you can’t have greatness without power, although this relationship doesn’t always work in reverse; we’ve had our share of “evil empires” in the past, and our future is not yet writ.

Perhaps Thucydides had it right when he intimated that in the final analysis, power needs no justification.

The incident concerns the island of Melos. The Athenians were particularly anxious to get absolute control of Melos because, as an island, her independence constituted a very bad example for the subjects of a maritime empire. A considerable contingent of the Athenian navy was detached to reduce the island, but before engaging in hostilities they communicated with the government of Melos and re-quested a conference.

What follows is an excerpt from the famous Melian Dialogue in the History of the Peloponnesian War:

ATHENIAN DELEGATES: On our side we will not make you long speeches – which you would not believe, anyhow – with fine phrases to the effect that our empire is a just one because we defeated the Persians or that our attack upon you now is due to wrongs suffered at your hands; and we must beg you to spare us likewise – that is to say, not to think you will convince us by saying that you did not join our side because you were colonists of the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] or that you have done us no injury, but let us try to get done what is practicable on the basis of real opinions of each of our governments, each side being well aware that in human terms justice is only in question which an equal degree of compulsion exists on each side, and that in practical terms the more powerful do what they can and the weaker yield what they must.

A commentary by David Grene:

What she [Athens] has thought the rest of the Greeks chiefly is to be aware of the creation of power in the name of nothing except itself and to consider the factor of the creation of power openly and rationally. In these two respects – and they go closely together – Athens was unique in terms of past history and, it may be contended, in terms of succeeding history until our own time.

And further down,

The extraordinary feature of the Athenian empire is that that the Athenians built it with nothing to stand between themselves and injustice they caused; that they faced it all together, every one of them, in individual moral responsibility all the time; and that what they tried to construct as explanation of their actions was no nationalist or semireligious fiction but, as they thought of it, a rational account of the manner in which all men everywhere have acted (pp. 4-6).

Though the Melian expedition, was a trivial affair in the larger scheme of things, the population of the small island was wiped out, and that was the end of it.

Now we’ve come full circle to the notion of American Exceptionalism. My take on it is that it is an advertisement. All empires in the past have tooted their own horn; it comes with the territory The Athenian city-state, for example, had once proclaimed itself to be “the school of Greece” in the immortal Funeral Speech by Pericles. With Rome, it was “Pax Romana,” the blessed peace which  fell on all territories under Rome’s control once the “belligerent” nations were conquered and brought into the fold. With the British Empire, it was Kipling’s memorable phrase of “The White Man’s Burden.” And with America, it’s “exceptionalism,” or the “Great Experiment,” or any other term that had come into use to propagandize its greatness. It’s the PR that power uses to justify itself, to present itself as more palatable, more humane, more acceptable to all those who are under its grip.

Foolish, perhaps, but all too human.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Irene Wagner

    “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

    America will be a great world power as long as she is under the impression she is good. I’m not going to start a BC firestorm by claiming that America 1) ever was 2) never was 3) or was and isn’t good.

    In general, it’s safe to say that goodness, once lost, might be restored if one puts the pursuit of greatness on the back burner for awhile, or if it is put on the back burner for one.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    How can I disagree, Irene, with your appeal to virtue?

    As to your reference to a firestorm on BC, we’ve already had it, and a violent one at that, but that was on the previous thread. This follow-up is meant to diffuse the issue, not to reignite it.

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com/ Joanne Huspek

    A wonderful piece, Roger. There’s a flip side to the exceptionalism, and that is the eventual fall from grace. What goes up must also come down, unfortunately. That’s the shoe drop that I’m hoping will occur after I’m long gone.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, thank you, Joanne.

    I’m as well aware as my many detractors of America’s many faults, but I am not going to be blinded by some irrational hatred so as to deny the great strides we have made.

    Hopefully, it’s not too late to build upon that base and try to regain our former stature and hopefully, find ourselves again.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Very good piece, Roger, and I agree that we should consider whether the end of Pax Americana signals the end of America’s primacy, or whether our worldwide cultural influence will preserve our place as first among equals just as Athens’ cultural advances cemented her place in history even though many nations were stronger.

    Irene, I suggest we juxtapose the quote by Tocqueville – that America will cease to be great when we cease to be good – with Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. It has now become public knowledge that America tortured childrenchildren! – in our ‘war on terror’. We now face a choice – to not prosecute those who authorized and ordered the torture and thus place ourselves in danger of the fulfillment of Tocqueville’s maxim, or to prosecute and place our nation even further along the path of radical polarization. Which choice will be made, and which road will be the one not taken?

    As for myself, the shame and disgrace upon our national honor is intolerable. We must prosecute and hold our elected officials accountable…and if these scoundrels are indeed as patriotic as they would have us believe, then they should have the courage to stand before an international court of law to preserve our national honor.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thanks, Glenn, for your kind words.

    I definitely think something ought to be done about past disgraces. My only concern is that punishing only the low-level operatives will leave a mistaken impression that justice has been done while those who were really responsible will get off scot-free.

    It is a conundrum.

  • Clavos

    …I agree that we should consider whether the end of Pax Americana signals the end of America’s primacy…

    We can only hope.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Glenn,

    Nov. 2008

    Guantanamo: How many children were held?

    The ACLU raises the issue of government lying about the number of children detained at Guantanamo. This follows a release last week on incontrovertible evidence that the Pentagon was distorting the number of children held. It appears that virtually no claim made by US authorities regarding detention and interrogation operations is reliable:

    Pentagon Admits Number of Guantánamo’s Children is Higher than Originally Disclosed

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Just looked at that link, Glenn. It is outrageous. Who would have believed?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Perhaps they should let the international body not just look at the abuses but give them jurisdictional powers. If the administration (for whatever reasons) does not want to proceed with this matter, authorizing The Hague might be one way of saving face and without hampering justice from taking its course.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And that could give Obama an out (if they feel they must have one): it’s out of our hands.

  • Irene Wagner

    True Glenn, but Tocqueville didn’t have “World Superpower” in mind when he referred to America’s greatness. Maybe Superpower, Goodness and Greatness will mean the same thing one day, or rather, they won’t be categories that are so disjoint as they seem to be now.

    Roger, I’m trying hard to limit the firestorms I start to one a month!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’ve just got through one, Irene, from which I barely recovered. So no, don’t start one yet.

  • Irene Wagner

    Dang Roger, you’re two seconds too late. Cindy– I laughed at the quote on another thread. Can’t live with ‘em…

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And do you also mean what you have left as an elliptical – can’t live without ‘em?

  • Irene Wagner

    Oh come on Roger. Doesn’t everyone know the rest of the elliptical?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Of course they do, but my comment was more devious than what meets the eye. I was sorta pumping you.

  • Irene Wagner

    Yes, Roger, I mean it. As brothers, fathers, lovers or friends. It’s fine to spar with 51% of the human race, a big mistake to make them the enemy.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That was never my intention. But at times, temporary hostility/enmity is the only weapon that’s left.

  • Irene Wagner

    :) Tant pis, male-man. It’s all in the nature of things.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And the nature of things is a good thing.
    For when God finished creating the world, he said it was good.

  • Irene Wagner

    I wish He could same the same for it now, Roger.
    But I’m hopeful. Most people are hopeful. It’s just hard to see myself and hard for others to seem themselves as part of the problem.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You’re making me look up your French idioms in the Wiki. I apologize for not being sufficiently au courant.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    (pssst…Irene, I am reading that manifesto and I’ll put a post in the other thread later.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I think the problem is each of us is at a different level – and still such a long way to go. So can you imagine how frustrating it must be from the vantage point of perfect consciousness.?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    And how lonely?

  • Irene Wagner

    Not even on my most perfectly conscious days, Roger, can I come close to knowing how much it breaks his heart. But we’re free to choose what we do, that’s the mystery of it all.

    Well, I’d best be getting on with my day. Thanks for taking a look Cindy.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Nice chatting with you. It’s always uplifting.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    It has now become public knowledge that America tortured children – children! – in our ‘war on terror’.

    Not sure where you’re getting your info. These children were not held at Gitmo at any point, nor were they even in US coustody. The affadavit with the accusation claims that they kids were questioned by Pakistani interrogators in Pakistan while their father was being sought by the US and Pakistani forces.

    Dave

  • pablo

    Yeah Dave no kids were held at gitmo, sure buddy.

  • pablo

    Why no comments in this thread Nalle?

    Controversy Over the Release of the Bush Era Torture Memos

    Hmmmm? Cat got yer tongue? Or how about the 180 some odd waterboardings done in one month to the dude that confessed to crimes that had not even occured yet, while he was incarcerated? Hmmm Davey boy?

  • Arch Conservative

    “Or how about the 180 some odd waterboardings done in one month to the dude that confessed to crimes that had not even occured yet”

    I believe you’re referring to the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed one of the 911 planners, in 2003 after 911 had occurred [Gratuitous vulgarity deleted by Comments Editor].

    It’s nice to see that you get your panties in a bunch over the waterboaridng of some piece of shit terrorist that killed 3000 Americans but you’ve yet to make any remarks on the current administration’s labelling of returning Iraq war vets as well as anyone who doesn’t toe the leftist line on issues such as immigration, abortion, taxes etc etc as terrorists.

    When he’s not shaking hands and having a grand ole time with South American dictators our very own King Barry is laying the ground work here at home for the persecution of those who dare espouse politicals views contrary to his own.

    But hey as long as we can still find things to Bash Bush about we can ignore what Barry is doing to this nation. and everything will be fine right?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “When he’s not shaking hands and having a grand ole time with South American dictators”

    Little bit of a double standard there, Archie, don’t you think?

    The South American dictators are all fine with you so long as we install ‘em and they do our bidding – should I name names? – but once they oppose American interests, they stink.

    I’d think about it if I were you.

  • Doug Hunter

    I agree with Nalle here, there is nothing that indicates children were tortured with bugs, at least in the article. That is probably one of the good things about Obama’s policy.

    If you conceal one act people will assume you’re lying about everything. If you stretch the boundaries, even for a mastermind of an attack, then suddenly conspiracy theorists come out of the woodwork thinking you’re torturing kids and American citizens, etc. etc.

    Do I personally feel bad about the US using waterboarding, something we train our own troops with, against one of the masterminds of 9/11 to try and extract information about possible other attacks?

    Not really.

    Is it worth it considering it gives ammunition to the enemies of the US both inside this country and abroad?

    Probably not.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Doug Hunter,

    So you feel justified in using drowning torture* on ‘guilty’ people, if I understand you.

    (*That’s what ‘waterboarding’ really is–not simulated drowning–actual drowning. ‘Waterboarding’ sounds more like going out to the beach with a surfboard.)

    How do you feel about using the drowning torture on innocent people?

  • Doug Hunter

    If in the impossibly unlikely scenario that you could foil a plot to kill thousands of people by simulated drowning or drowing without killing one of the masterminds, I’d say the lives of thousands outweight the mental anguish of one– let’s call that the Jack Bauer mentality.

    I think Obama is right on this one though, the small benefit in the unrealistically convoluted scenario is outweighed by the very real bad publicity and loss of moral compass.

    Also, I personally think I am capable of torture in an equally unlikely event. ie, my kids have been kidnapped and I manage to grab one of the kidnappers as they race off. If I thought beating the crap out of him or threatening him with a gun would force him to tell me where they were going I might do it (while waiting for the police after I called them of course)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “If I thought beating the crap out of him or threatening him with a gun would force him to tell me where they were going I might do it (while waiting for the police after I called them of course)”

    I’m not certain I would call that “torture.” Plus you know for certain you’re dealing with a guilty party.

    What do you think, Doug?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Doug,

    Have you looked at real life information regarding the reliability of evidence produced via torture? Or do you just presume it works because a fictional character does?*

    (*I’m assuming he does, based on what you said. As I haven’t seen ’24’.)

  • Clavos

    Good point, Cindy, but only if there is actual, empirical data which proves that Subject A, who was tortured gave false information, while Subject B, who was not, but was cajoled and co-opted instead, gave reliable, truthful information.

    Claims from former CIA (or whatever) agents aren’t necessarily empirical; they’re too close to the issue (either way: pro or con) for objectivity.

    Here’s one empirical fact: torture has been practiced since the dawn of history, which proves either that mankind does not learn from its mistakes, or that torture DOES work, at least to some degree.

    I’m inclined to believe the latter, because interrogators, like attorneys, usually have some idea of the general gist of an answer to their questions before they ask them, so it’s easy enough for them to judge the quality of the information gleaned.

    What they’re usually looking for is confirmation and/or details.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Clav,

    I follow a basic precept because I feel is imperative to do so in any kind of just society.

    Basically: It is always up to authority to justify itself. Not the other way around.

    Here’s one empirical fact: torture has been practiced since the dawn of history, which proves either that mankind does not learn from its mistakes, or that torture DOES work, at least to some degree.

    I can think of a third reason. That is, there has always existed cruelty.

    Also, I Mark made the best point yesterday–about torture working. It works to do something quite different than what most people think.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    (I [think] Mark made)

  • Clavos

    I can think of a third reason. That is, there has always existed cruelty.

    True, but those prone to practice cruelty don’t need the excuse of torture to do so; ask any battered spouse or child.

  • Clavos

    Re #42:

    Torture has been practiced for so long because it is believed (rightly or wrongly) to work to some degree, not simply to indulge the torturer’s predilection for cruelty.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    #42

    True, but those prone to practice cruelty don’t need the excuse of torture to do so; ask any battered spouse or child.

    Cruelty–is it just a part-time hobby? It wouldn’t be attractive to some to engage in cruelty as an occupation? And relish the development of its culture within a setting such as an authority group like the military? Isn’t this kind of position attractive for some for that very reason? That they can gain their own authority and implement it within such an power-based community.

    (I have to take #43 separately and think about it.)

  • Clavos

    Cruelty–is it just a part-time hobby? It wouldn’t be attractive to some to engage in cruelty as an occupation?

    Cindy, I think you missed my point. Of course the job of government torturer would be attractive to someone with a predilection for torture, but my point was that there are far more cruel people in the world (and in the US) than there are jobs as torturers. There are far more opportunities to be cruel than just those offered by a career in torture.

    The practice of torture in a given society is usually instituted by persons much higher on the food chain than those who will actually perform the torture. Those higher-ups rarely participate, or even observe, the goings on in the dungeons; their reasons usually have much more to do with intelligence gathering than enjoying the cruelty involved.

    I think there are far more freelancers in cruelty than career torturers.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    One possible distinction:

    cruelty: (character/behavioral trait) – shows up on occasions;

    torture: a practice (sadism, e.g.)

    Another context: torture – a method (to obtain information, etc); here, cruelty might be coincidental.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Clav.

    I do think I missed your point before.

    Anyway I don’t think I have a problem believing that…(rightly or wrongly) some people believe it provides/could provide reliable information. Look at Doug, he does.

  • Clavos

    Here’s another interesting take on cruelty, Cindy:

    They just announced on ABC’s Nightline that Boston police think they have the Craig’s List Killer in custody. He’s a pre-med student, 22 YO, at Boston University.

    Go figure. A prestigious school, a prestigious field of study — and he’s a serial killer.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Allegedly.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    In about 1995 I was studying serial killers as a part of developing my theoretical views on human development and what creates psychopathy. I read about so many serial killers, that’s not hard for me to believe.

    Clav, do you realize how many serial killer never even make the news? And that there is an estimated 25-100 serial killers active in the US at any given time.

  • Franco

    #5 — Glenn Contrarian

    It has now become public knowledge that America tortured children – children! – in our ‘war on terror’.

    Glenn, your so-called “public knowledge” is based on only one site you linked to in support of what you assert as fact. Yet the link can’t back you up. Now here is what your one link says.

    “the allegations regarding the children came from a military tribunal in 2007 when the father of a Guantanamo detainee alleged that Pakistani guards had confessed that American interrogators used ants to coerce the children of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed into revealing their father’s whereabouts.

    Glenn, please explain how “allegations” constitute fact and how that translates to “public knowledge? And explain if you would the photo in the link you provide showing a child crying with a soldier standing over him as if he is about to put ants in his pants supports “public knowadge” when the photo has nothing to do with the so called allegations?

    Now if you can’t explain any of that, perhaps you would be so kind to provide us with something of real substance to back up what you intentionally assert as fact. Pray tell Glenn.

  • Clavos

    Cindy #50,

    Actually, I have heard those figures, I’m just interested that this young man seems to be in a privileged situation — not the sort you would normally expect to be a serial killer (allegedly).

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Franco,

    Here is a more detailed article about the children.

    The children, 7 and 9, were kidnapped and imprisoned for 4 months or more for questioning.

    That is backed up by the Red Cross.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Just in case you didn’t understand my message, I meant BC – not you. It’s just too preempting and I’ve got to restructure things first. So later.
    If you have any questions with some of the things I said, talk with Irene. She might help.
    Roger

  • Franco

    #53 — Cindy

    “That is backed up by the Red Cross.”

    Cindy, Glenn’s link headlines the following torture claim – “Bush memos parallel claim 9/11 mastermind’s children were tortured with insects”

    Your claim that the Red Cross backs this up turns out to be 100% false. Here is what your link actually says

    “The use of insects is not mentioned in a recently leaked International Red Cross report, in which Red Cross officials questioned detainees about their treatment at the hands of US forces”

    That is exactly the oppiste to what you assert.

    Additionally, no where in the link you provided dose it even say that the Red Cross reports anything about children being tortured at all.

    Your link is also a leftwing extremist disinformation SWP front group using “lynch mob” tactics dedicated to the downfall of the United States.

    If this is the kind of revelution garbage justice that comforts you and you choose to associate yourself with such sites you are free to do so. But I am also free to call you out for the misinformed, misguided “lynch mob’ hack you are when you throw this kind of garbage at my feet.

    I have to ask you if you even read the stuff you pass off as evidence to support your fabricated assertions. Everything you asserted is proven 100% false by your own supporting evidence. Can you explain that?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Franco,

    I don’t think you understood my post at all. I said that the children were kidnapped and imprisoned and that the Red Cross backed this up.

    Is it okay to kidnap and imprison children and hold them for 4+ months? What could possibly be gained by doing such a thing?

    Is putting insects on their legs to scare them any worse of an thing than kidnapping and holding them prisoners?

    Is it not torture for children to be forcibly removed by strangers and locked up away from their parents? Could you imagine what that must be like for children and especially for such small children?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Another example of an ideology – or belief in some “higher” ideal, like fighting America’s enemies – overriding human values and makes people, like good ole Franco here, into a non-sentient being.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    …when you throw this kind of garbage at my feet.

    What an image that calls to mind. At your feet?

    Good thing you aren’t standing close enough to backhand me. That’s what I’d expect from someone who’d say something like that.

    (I guess this just shows I do associate with very questionable types.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “a leftwing extremist disinformation SWP front group using “lynch mob” tactics dedicated to the downfall of the United States.”

    I would say that the moment America starts speaking with the voice of good ol’ Franco here, then it deserves to fall.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    #57

    I think that is very well said.

    I relates to how I think of the way ideology has been inculcated into the dominant society at large (through enculturation), not just the Francos, albeit it’s often expressed more subtly.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, we talked about it on another thread. And this is just a perfect example. If you really tune in to some of these comments, especially from the apologists for all kinds of abhorrent behavior in the name of whatever, you’ll see how many fall in the same category: they’re so caught up in what they’re defending, they are blinded to the human cost. You’ll see this site is full of ‘em, all you’ve got to do is to flesh it out.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No, I don’t blame it on culture. I blame the individual – Franco and the rest of them. Why? Because they choose the easy way out. They did have examples of going the other way – the right way – but they chose differently and are forfeiting their humanity. And in so doing, they’re no longer individuals but machines.

    Which brings the point of maturity: being an adult is not the same. Most of them are fools and they’ll never get it. What you call as the right kind of thinking (for anarchists and the like), to me is an individual doing his or her thinking for themselves. If they want to be an anarchist besides, that’s an option; but you don’t have to be an anarchist to be an individual.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I think that is close to perfect. I wish though, people could use that as a personal insight more. Seeing that I believe we have been indoctrinated, I can hardly exclude myself as if I stand outside my culture.

    Here’s how I think that would work better:

    If we really tune in…especially when we are being apologists for all kinds of abhorrent behavior in the name of whatever. We’ll see how we fall in the same category: we’re so caught up in what we’re defending, we are blinded to the human cost.

  • Clavos

    Wwhhirrr, clank, ppssss, pocketa-pocketa, shoop, shoop, clang, hisss…

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, you’re being kinder than I am. I’m not saying I don’t have blind spots. Everyone’s got them; and yes, we can eliminate them, one by one, if we tune into ourselves (I talked of being self-reflective before, remember). So yes, this advice applies to everyone. But I was in a biting mode, so I wanted to identify the worst offenders; let them get mad.

    A more general kind of statement (whereby everyone would be included) would not be as forceful. And I wanted to make it forceful.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Everyone’s got them–[blindspots]

    Here is a challenge. If everyone has got blind spots along these lines:

    If each of us are apologists for all kinds of abhorrent behavior in the name of whatever…that we become…so caught up in what they’re we’re defending, they we are blinded to the human cost.

    How do we get that way?

    (The answer should account for anthropological evidence that not all people everywhere do this.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Having “blind spots” is a relative thing. It’s a function of less than perfect consciousness. Since none of us have reached that state, we’ll always have them.

    So there are stages of personal growth, as well as different levels between people at any given point in time.

  • Cindy

    I agree with you on #67. It sounds accurate to me. But I’m thinking of going a step further. So, here is another challenge, if you accept it:

    I’m wondering, if it is just that we have blindspots. How does a whole group (country, nation) manage to have very similar and specifically oriented blindspots. Ones that allow for adopting certain ideologies but actually seem to make it unlikely that other ideologies will be adopted.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I think cultural variance is less interesting here than the general human condition. Just as it takes time for a baby to … whatever. it’s no different with adolescents and adults. The parameters may and do vary – from culture to culture – because every culture is “biased.” But having said that, it’s still a matter of individual responsibility (because as humans, we do have adequate resources) to free oneself from whatever cultural constraints and rise above them, as it were.

    So the differences relate to the particulars, not to the principle as such.

  • Cindy

    I think cultural variance is less interesting here than the general human condition.

    Well, that’s fine. We each have our own focus. But maybe you can see now why, for me, the question might be:

    How does one go from clutching one’s stuffed kangaroo by the tail and kissing the dog on the mouth…to someone who doesn’t seem to clearly understand what inhumanity (such as torture) is?

    I approach the problem this way because my experience tells me, if I don’t account for the insidious bias inculcated through culture (as it’s not at all obvious), then I won’t know when this bias is infringing on my ability to consider any ideology critically as I self-reflect.

    Put a second way, I will have ideas in my head that are unexamined (cultural biases). I will be using these unexamined ideas to try to examine other ideas. What must this result in?

    If I don’t challenge culturally indoctrinated biases, I can’t know they are there and limiting my ability to reflect clearly.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    But Cindy, that’s what I mean by freeing yourself from cultural biases and prejudices. And once you do, you will see everything with a critical eye.

    And you can’t go wrong here with adopting the values that matter – love, sympathy, honesty, justice, fairness, and the like – because these will always trump whatever cultural values and find them defective. So these always ought to be your guideline, the beacon in the storm, the safe harbor. When you think of people and treat them with concern, you’ll never go wrong. And that’s the starting point.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Okay, so we agree that love, sympathy, honesty, justice, fairness, and the like are important values. (It’s not to say, for now, that I agree that we can’t go wrong merely adopting them.)

    My next question is, in doing this…

    …that’s what I mean by freeing yourself from cultural biases and prejudices. And once you do, you will see everything with a critical eye. (you)

    …how do you address this:

    I will have ideas in my head that are unexamined (cultural biases). I will be using these unexamined ideas to try to examine other ideas. What must this result in? (me)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Give me till tomorrow morning. I’m kind of wiped out. Thanks for not hanging up.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Good deal Roger. Take all the time you need. I’m off to listen to Robert B. Parker. And if I can’t reply right away, it’s because I work in between and it’s been busier than usual.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Don’t need time, just out of energy. So later.

  • STM

    American exceptionalism??

    Try this: Australian exceptionalism, and why it’s an exceptional, cranking place to live (sorry to all you deluded Yankee folk, but seriously – you just can’t match some of this :)here, here and especially here, with Burleigh Heads, one of the world’s best point breaks, cranking its little socks off.

  • STM

    Gee, it’s hell down here in the South Pacific

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Hey, STM,

    I’ve got no problem with that. Sounds like a paradise.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    A number of points, Cindy, re your last remark:

    1) “Adopting” is not the most fortunate word. These things are real, not just words, so in a sense you have to internalize them and that means (to a point) living them.

    2) Most of the things on the list (though not all) comprise what it means to be a “moral agent”;
    they’re moral values (or moral ideals);

    3) I can’t speak for everybody else here as to how one “becomes” a moral agent; some may “grow into it” naturally – from home, parents, etc., I suppose – with other’s it’s not far removed from a kind of conversion (more than one, possibly), akin to catharsis; with me it was the latter. It is a process; I would suppose that “the conversion route” is a more striking and definite experience, because you kind of wake up from what you realize has been a kind of slumber, whereas “the natural process” would fail to alert you to the contrast (because everything that we sort of take for granted, even the good things, tend to remain unexamined). Still, in either case, it is a process, but once you get there, you know it.

    4) What is the source, the raw material, the basis and the pattern of morality? It’s part and parcel of our language. The terms – justice, fairness, etc. – not only have a long history of being embedded in language (in the strictly etymological sense) but they’re part of our conceptual network and are liable to pop up even in ordinary conversations; and learning the language includes learning such terms, whether you want to or not.

    5) You speak of culturally-defined (and biased) terms which skew the vision and prevent one from seeing clearly. Well, our language is always like a growing organism, some terms alter original meanings, acquire new meanings, new terms/concepts come into being. It’s always the new and the old. Well, these moral concepts/values/terms/ideals are ancient and proven. So while a lot in our language (and therefore our vision, because we don’t see through our eyes but through our language) changes, a lot doesn’t. And it is those old, proven concepts that provide you with the right kind of lens with which evaluate the different, the biased, and the new.

    6) These are not (just) theoretical terms – although one could venture into the theoretical once one moves to another, say, philosophical, level of discourse – but pertain to human practice, a way of being. And in that sense, they’re not just empty theoretical terms or just words but they’re real (because they refer to human practice and become real through practice). Definitely, not just words.

    7) Of course, they’re also ideals – something we aim at, our beacons of light, always trying to become, trying to realize our full potential, like Aristotle’s notion of movement from actuality to potentiality. And that’s why they’re also called virtues – to signify their desirability (and goodness). The Greeks had a term, “arete,” to signify this pursuit in whatever area: excellence is one translation. It applied to whatever you’re doing, your skills as an artisan, artist, poet, whatever. But the most proper application was to living “good life” – which is to say, to the sphere of morals. So arete in the most highest sense referred to excellence in matters of “right kind of living,” – and therefore to pursuit of the virtues. (“Arete” itself was a virtue because it denoted “pursuit of excellence, perhaps the highest virtue for the Greeks because it denoted methodology and defined everything else you were doing or failing to do.)

    8) Once you “become” a moral agent as it were, you acquire “a third eye” you just can’t get rid of. You might call it an exaggerated sense of conscience (not in the sense of what to do but what not to do). Thus, there’s an internalized self-control that becomes a part of you – a governor, if you like. And as I said, you can’t get rid of it. (One definition of a psychopath or a sociopath refers to some personality defect whereby “conscience” is inoperative.) Think also on the expression “moral compass” or losing one’s moral compass. Again, these are not just words but real things.

    9) So here it is: you evaluate the old and the new, the good and the bad, and the indifferent, from strictly moral viewpoint. It’s the predominant vision and your anchor (and we all need it now and then).

    10) Some values on the list transcend morality, but we can talk about it.

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Great shots, STM.

    It is God’s country. If once could live there, everything else becomes trivial. Thanks for sharing this.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    Re: use of ‘adopt’. We mean the same thing there. Whatever word choice you prefer is fine with me.

    You speak of culturally-defined (and biased) terms which skew the vision and prevent one from seeing clearly.

    Did I? I don’t think I spoke about that.

    It’s interesting what you have there in #79. I’m neither agreeing with it nor arguing against it. As it represents a completely different discussion from what I’m getting at–which is besides the idea of moral development.

    I’m trying to use a rough method based on your idea of taking the lead–with your permission, of course. (as you see I asked for that a few times) So, you recognize if I am challenging you, I have adopted the lead. One difference is that my goal is not to reach agreement–just to achieve understanding.

    I don’t see anything that suggests my points are comprehended yet. It might help if you allow me to keep the lead. It means you’d need to answer my challenges. So, what do you think? Do you want to give up or continue?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    I’m citing from your #72:

    “I will have ideas in my head that are unexamined (cultural biases). I will be using these unexamined ideas to try to examine other ideas. What must this result in? (me)”

    I took this to mean that there are “culturally-defined (and biased) terms which skew the vision and prevent one from seeing clearly.” (see your #81).

    If I misunderstood what you’re saying, let me know how?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    Okay, I’ll try. Not ‘terms’–‘beliefs’…

    You said:

    …that’s what I mean by freeing yourself from cultural biases and prejudices. And once you do, you will see everything with a critical eye.

    What I am asking is this: If I don’t know I have a blindspot how can I free myself from it?

    And won’t that blindspot, for as long as I have it, taint my reasoning?

    So, how does one accomplish the task of freeing oneself from cultural biases using tainted thinking?

    (any clearer?)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    First, terms and beliefs are synonymous here insofar that terms are concepts and therefore a way of seeing the world – to include our beliefs.

    And number two, yes, I think I understood you correctly, as per point #5 in my long response when I speak of “the right kind of lens.” That’s exactly what I mean to have been an answer to your question: in short, our moral makeup, or being moral beings, is the vantage point, true and tried, from which to examine anything you suspect as being false or fishy. Now, you may disagree with that, and we can discuss that, but that was my answer.

    If I’m missing anything, do let me know. And you needn’t worry about your “taking the lead,” as you said. Why should I mind it at all?

    Roger

    PS: As to “freeing oneself of their blind spot,” generally speaking now, it can only take place in light of some NEW realization. We’ve all had experiences of the kind.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    The sort of thing I mean is in the second thing you say.

    As to “freeing oneself of their blind spot,” generally speaking now, it can only take place in light of some NEW realization. We’ve all had experiences of the kind.

    I agree, we have all had those experiences.

    In #72 I said something along the lines of: I couldn’t agree that becoming a moral agent and using self-reflection was enough to rid ourselves of a cultural bias. And the reason I believe this is twofold. One, our biases are influencing how we determine exactly what is and is not moral. And two, we can apply moral thinking only to things we are aware of. That is, we can’t do it if we don’t suspect anything is false or fishy.

    So, self-reflection alone, without new realization, is not enough to get us very far in removing cultural bias. I think we agree here.

    So now the question is this: How do we actively accomplish what you set out to do in #71, with all these biases in our way? What is it exactly that we have to do in order to have before we can have that new realization?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Insofar from what I can gather, thus far, the following is the point of contention (over which we do seem to have a disagreement), and I quote from your comment:

    “One, our biases are influencing how we determine exactly what is and is not moral. And two, we can apply moral thinking only to things we are aware of. That is, we can’t do it if we don’t suspect anything is false or fishy.”

    This is the one point concerning which we don’t see eye to eye thus far, and my contention simply is that it isn’t so – namely that it’s not the case that “our biases,” as you say,” are influencing” what is and what is not “moral.” I would argue to the contrary, that moral terms and concept have a long established and long-standing “logic” (for lack of a better word). That they provide us in fact with a ready-made litmus test (if you like), a fool-proof manner of evaluating everything else in our conceptual itinerary, so as to help us determine (and I’ll put myself on the limb here, “without reasonable doubt”) as to what is right, wrong, and indifferent. Anything you please. Don’t forget, the very terms such as “right” or “wrong” are predominantly MORAL terms, though they can’t help but trickle into other, non-moral universe of discourse. Anyways, that’s the logic and the power of the “moral language game.”

    So perhaps we should discuss this particular point before proceeding any further, because it does, in my eyes at least, constitutes the stumbling block, don’t you think?

    I’m game if you are.

    Roger

    PS: We can talk about “realizations” later.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I agree we should discuss it. I figured we likely would have to, judging by your other points.

    Okay so, to make sure we are talking about the same thing, can you give me a specific example?

    If I disagree then I’ll give you one.

    (Also, another point which will need to be dealt with is this: I don’t believe all cultural biases involve moral decisions. Therefore, how can moral reflection (even if it is as you propose, universal) resolve these biases?)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Regarding your last point, Cindy, as regards the universal applicability of moral judgments to anything and everything, I agree. There ARE, as I prefaced earlier, other considerations; so I don’t mean to claim therefore that it’s to be our end-all-and-be all – only a reliable start. We can take this point up later on.

    Now, to your first question – as regards the applicability of “moral judgment” to a great many things AT LARGE – let me start first with general considerations, not any concrete example (as yet) but things related to general procedure.

    You as well as I know that we’re becoming incensed at times (why not use that word?) with some of the things we heart on this very site from what would be (or seem to be, so we would assume) otherwise “reasonable people.” So my question to you is: What do you think is the basis of for our regarding them so – whether we’re right in our determination or assessment of them?

    I suggest it’s basically none other than our feeling or conviction – pick your own word now, I don’t care – that the views they express represents some kind of a violation of “the moral code,” that what they’re saying is unconscionable in certain ways, that no human being ought to say such things if and only if … they were mindful of … what?

    I will go along with you as far as to say that these flagrant violations – and they are flagrant, both you and I know – fly in the face of “let’s say humanity.” But now I’m going to suggest that a good chunk, if you will, of what we regard as “humanity,” and the appropriate kind of sense and feeling toward our brothers and sisters, is part of what I call our “moral code” and our morality.

    Back to you.

    Roger

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Okay. This is an excellent representation of exactly what happens when I get angry at what someone says…

    …it’s basically none other than our feeling or conviction…that the views they express represent some kind of a violation of “the moral code”…

    Here is the problem I’m having with agreeing further than that. Each other person, whose views may be at variance with mine, would also be basing her/his position on a moral code (for lack of a better word). Therefore, if I am angered by a violation, at the same time I am angering someone else by my violation of what they conceptualize as their moral code.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    I don’t necessarily believe so; they’re blinded to what’s ought to be more basic or primary – remember, we talked about – adherence to their ideologies. That’s why you’ve got to flesh it out and show that whatever they espouse flies in the face of basic human values.

    It is hard work, I admit, but it can be done if you’re persistent enough and they cooperate rather than just balk or stonewall.

    You are giving most people (from what I see) more credit than you ought to. They’re not as caring or concerned as you are. I know it’s not a pleasant opinion to live with, but it’s more often true than false. Many people have got into the habit of suspending what they know is right if it suits their purposes. It’s called becoming corrupted. I don’t need to provide examples, do I? from public life. Well, the crowd at BC is just as fairly representative a sample as it gets – the good, the bad, and the indifferent. You don’t have to succeed or be rich and famous, or
    “accomplished,” to be(come) corrupted. It happens to ordinary folk as well; so “success” in this narrowly-defined sense, is not a necessary condition.

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    We’ll talk tomorrow.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    When I say that, it isn’t actually out of a sense of generosity or kindness. It’s out of my own understanding and interpretation learning, thinking…what have you. In other words, it’s not, in this case, a casual assessment.

    Okay here are my arguments, so far:

    I believe we learn morality. That is, it is not innate–we are not born with it. As with anything we learn, it comes to us through someone else’s filter like parents, culture, peers, etc.

    So, a particular moral position is, for me, like any other idea that can be either considered or left unexamined. Granted, many cultures will have certain moral values in common–it’s a matter of survival.

    That said…

    I agree with you, that there are universal moral precepts that work best for everyone. But I think that if a culture has a moral blindspot, or skewed morals, people tend to be indoctrinated with that limitation and that blindspot. So, I’d think there would be a problem getting past that without that same new realization we discussed above.

    So, I would ask the following:

    If there are universal morals accessible to each individual despite cultural conditioning–what happens if we are born into in a culture that does not adopt a particular universal moral value? How can it be accessed by any individual, without that new realization?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Nite nite. Be back tomorrow.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Now we’re getting into “tricky” areas, but anyway:

    1) Morality is a matter of learning (in a sense), but not as something “outside of language” (meaning a particular theory or a point of view) but as integral part OF learning the language (just like any other aspect of language – “mama,” “dada,” words and phrases) because it IS part of language: it’s embedded in it (as well expressed or articulated “in” language and no other vehicle.

    2) I’m not going to delve into the different theories as to how language is learned; that’s beside the point. To bring up just one you may be familiar with, Choamsky speaks of “innate faculty” (in a brain region, as it were). So on that view at least, if language itself is innate, so is morality by the same token. There are other views, of course, some having to do with the socialization process; others, on the religious or theological side, which try to explain away “innateness” in terms of connection to a divinity (i.e., in terms of it being imparted to us). But as I said, this is in the realm of speculation and not particularly relevant to the argument. (Of course, Wittgenstein is the best source IMO as to how language is learned: it’s beyond learning the names of things, i.e., it’s beyond “naming,” for his whole life’s work was devoted to the concept of understanding.)

    3) The socialization process is more interesting here because it may throw some light on how the understanding of moral terms and concepts in a child evolve over time – from simples to more sophisticated forms. I have a segment on this (from a paper/essay I wrote once), and if you’d like, I’d email it to you.

    4) Number 2 does not imply that the subject matter of the evolution of language (in particular, of the moral component in language) is not a subject matter of interest and therefore incapable of yielding new insights. Nietzsche was the first to start what’s called “genealogy studies” – On the Genealogy of Morals – and Foucault adopted this form of inquiry and considered it very fruitful. And yes, there are also “functional” theories of morality (and other components of language) which attribute it to the survival instinct or impulse. But as far as I am concerned, these are sociological/anthropological comments and don’t impact (in my thinking) the argument.

    5) We have to distinguish between a particular “moral position” as you say, and moral terms/concepts – if for no other reason that not all morally-related questions have been resolved: the pro-choice vs pro-life is one example, and there are others. But all such questions are properly resolvable (if at all possible) in moral terms (which isn’t to say that other elements, from politics, e.g., aren’t going to be brought to bear on the issue.)

    6) “So, a particular moral position is, for me, like any other idea that can be either considered or left unexamined.”

    All “moral positions” tend to be examined (though not always resolves, as per example above) because they are subject of controversies in any given society as a result of conflict between morals and other interests. Plato’s Dialogues, or Socrates’ dispute with the Sophists (the Dan Miller’s of our day)are a case in point; they may be unexamined or rather poorly examined by particular individuals, but we have a written record of these examina-tions, whereby some moral concepts, such as justice, were taken to the limit as it were.

    7) It’s true that there is a hierarchy of moral concepts – some are “first-order” as it were, others more or less secondary. Justice, e.g., is more “important” than fairness, e.g., because the latter pertains more to the way we treat others (manners and/or etiquette (from ethics) rather than the more substantive issues (having to do, e.g., with passing a judgment on someone as a consequence of their action). So it it important to be aware of “the lay of the land.”

    “Stealing is wrong,” e.g. – a moral injunction, if you like – is an example of not being “first-order.” It’s still wrong, but there may be extenuating/mitigating/attenuating circumstances. And if you want to defeat this position, you have to strike at the notion of “property,” which the injunction is aimed at protecting. But then again, you’d have to argue for the abolition of property on moral grounds – which is to say, in terms of other, higher-order moral concepts.

    8) So yes, there is some relativity in morals, especially as regards the “lesser” concepts, because they’re contingent on the particular society (and the language); but this doesn’t defeat the proposition that moral norms within that society are not binding; and can only be defeated from within as it were, in terms available to the society in question: its own moral system and its language. Of course, as societies evolve, the peripheral aspects of the moral code may eventually be discarded and first-order concepts become more sophisticated.)

    9) Are there universal moral values? I’d like to think so – and justice would be best example. I would think that in any society (however “primitive”) there develops a system for adjudicating disputes, deciding cases, etc – if only as a matter of necessity. Thus a practice is formed, and the continuity of the practice tends to expand the limits (and the understanding) of the concepts as new cases come into being with respect to which prior cases (and judgments) are of no help. And so on and so forth. There is this constant interaction between practice and thought, or experience and thought/language – which both refines the practice and expands the understanding.

    10) “what happens if we are born into in a culture that does not adopt a particular universal moral value? How can it be accessed by any individual, without that new realization?”

    We are stuck with the language we know; it represents (at any given point) the limits of our vision/thought – although those limits are always pushed outwards, like pushing the envelop. So no, we can’t transcend the limits of the language other than bits by bits, step by step, as a result of the interaction between experience and thought. And therefore, in most cases “realizations” come within the confines of the language in use, as a result of self-reflection (when, e.g., you suspect you may have wronged someone) or practical circumstances (in the court of law, e.g.) which force one to dig deeper, because there is no precedent.

    An exception: the translators of ancient texts (the Bible, e.g.) have another kind of vision (provided by the original language); the Greek word for “justice” does not translate adequately or fully. So each language has its own peculiarities; still, each language represents the limit of thought/vision for the native speakers.
    So most “realizations” occur within a given language; but language itself is ever-expandable via new experience.

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Perhaps to add to point #10:

    There is an operating presumption that all people, in spite of cultural or ethnic variance, are essentially the same, having the same makeup, etc. And this also translates to their basic drives, desires, and concern. And it this would seem to argue to the effect that there is a significant chunk of “moral language and/or code” which is shared in common in all cultures (because of that shared makeup and shared concerns) – and in this sense, that shared part is “universal.”

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I have to work for now and I’ll need time to think about all that. But I want to take care of a couple things:

    Re: #1) I need more info. Got anything short and helpful? (2,3,4 are all dependent on my understanding of 1)

    #6) “So, a particular moral position is, for me, like any other idea that can be either considered or left unexamined.” (me)

    I’m not suggesting that any specific moral position has historically remained unexamined. My statement is only an iteration of my conception that morals are like other ideas and can be unexamined by a particular individual as a result of an indoctrinated bias.

    Considering our culture, for me, reality includes both: a) ideas that reinforce a cultural bias and b) other ideas (non-representative, counter-culture, or marginalized).

    So, my ideas don’t discount what you are saying in #6.

    That said, I’ll mention, I also agree there are “conflicts between morals and other interests”.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    What I mean by #1, Cindy, is that moral terms are just like any other terms of language; and that learning the language includes the learning of the moral vocabulary. And in light of that, no credible distinction can be made to accommodate the view that “learning” morality is a special kind of enterprise, separate and distinct from learning the language as such. If this doesn’t clear it up for you, let me know.

    As to your other point – namely, “that morals are like other ideas and can be unexamined by a particular individual as a result of an indoctrinated bias,” I have this to say:

    It’s not by virtue of culture, “biased or indoctrinated” as it may be, that a particular individual may fail to examine terms and concepts of their language (moral terms included), but their own inattention, laziness, negligence, whatever the reason. So the fault lies not with “culture” but with the individual.

    If anyone has had even a half-ass right kind of upbringing, they learn such terms as “honesty,” truthfulness,” and so on and so forth. So I’d say without any hesitation that it would be the individual’s fault if they later decide to live as if in ignorance of that. So it’s less a matter of willful examination, I’d say, than a concerted effort to ignore what they already know – or at best, a practice of self-deception.

    As a side point, I’d like to add that language always trumps culture. Because however it is true that there are constant accretions to language, which reflect the (sometimes undesirable) cultural influences of the times – George Orwell spoke of the double-speak, remember? – the language is also a record of past responses, which, again, can help us steer clear of the double-talk and buzz word so as to see them for what they are.

    In fact, one couldn’t even label something as “double speak,” for example, if one did not have some prior reference to the effect that it is so. And that kind of reference is more than available in our language.

    In short, all the resources are there. And if the individual fails to use them or conveniently forgets, it’s he or she that are to blame, not “culture.”

    Roger

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    BTW, you do realize, I suppose, you’re making me write the whole book. And if it weren’t for the fact that I believed your questions to be genuine, I would have stopped on the dot. So understand that I am temporarily yielding to this question and answer series, believing all along that you’re not just picking my brains but have serious issues to resolve, in light of which I don’t mind at all you taking the lead.

    If it isn’t so, please let me know.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I think you needn’t write books or yield. Look no hard feelings, but I have other things to do.

    Thanks. I think that was good as far as it went.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Look, I have no problem, Cindy. But I need some input from you too, on the positive side.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You know what I meant by #98, that I need a sympathetic reading on your part, so I asked for reassurance. I’m sorry for not having put it more tactfully; I didn’t mean to offend you.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Okay Roger, I thought you were getting grumpy and we were going to have to talk about talking soon. And I didn’t want to do that.

    Yes, I am giving a 100% sympathetic reading. I am very interested in having my own tentative theories challenged. If something makes sense I want to know about it. (I still have to read about Mark Shannon’s studies for that reason.)

    I’m sure this makes sense to you: the extent to which any new theory does not explain something that one’s own theory does explain, is the extent to which one cannot accept the new theory as more valid.

    So, it is in the spirit of trying to a) understand exactly what you mean, and b) seeing if your theory meets the challenges–accounts for things adequately–that I am engaging you.

    (P.S. I think at this point there is no real lead and we have been sharing it. I hope that is so, if not, I hope that will be soon.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Cindy. I guess I meant a little pat on the back. It was really stupid of me. Or at any rate, I should have been more direct in expressing myself.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    lol, s’okay :-)

    Thank you for writing so much. I think this is a great conversation. Gives me things to think about.

    Sorry I can’t reply for now, I have a commitment tonight. And I already spent time on another post.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    To veer to the subject for a while, think on this. I don’t believe I’m providing an alternative theory but a description of practice. We’re in the sphere of metaethics right now – i.e., talking about ethics (on analogy with metaphysics – about/above physics).

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Yikes. I had been keeping notes on ideas and writing quite a lot throughout this conversation. Now, I discovered the file I made is irreparably corrupted.

    So, I just have to coalesce these thoughts; then I’ll post.

  • Franco

    #56 — Cindy

    “Is it okay to kidnap and imprison children and hold them for 4+ months? What could possibly be gained by doing such a thing?”

    They were not “kidnapped” or “imprisoned” as you maintain. Whey they were taken in protective custody. Happens all the time, everyday, all over the world.

    In the opinion of leading International counter-terrorism officials, the terrorist extremist exstrodinare Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the boys father, was the man who gave security services around the world their worst nightmares.

    When Pakistani ISI staged a raid on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed house in efforts to capture him he escaped according to reports. When the Pakistai authorities searched the house they found the two boys hiding in a closet with another known al-Qa’eda operative also wanted by authorities. The boys were taken into protective custody at that time and the Al Quada operative was arrested.

    A Sunday Telegraph (UK) article in March 2003 alleged that CIA interrogators had detained the children for questioning. CIA officials explained that: “We are handling them with kid gloves. After all, they are only little children…but we need to know as much about their father’s recent activities as possible. We have child psychologists on hand at all times and they are given the best of care.”

    I do not believe that the US has or would abused these children. I do think it is a shame that they just happened to be the offspring of a mad man and that is not thier fault.

    Now, if Timothy McVeigh was still alive running loose planing another Oklahoma type bombing on another federal building somewhere and authoritie carrired out a raid on his house an he escaped and they had found his children hiding in a closit with another know terrorest and they were taken into protective custody, do you not think that the authorities would question the children in an effort to know as much about their father’s recent activities as possible?

    “Is it not torture for children to be forcibly removed by strangers and locked up away from their parents?”

    In this case no. First, they don’t have “parents”, they only have their extremist father Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as it is reported that the mother was not living with them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the 9/11 mastermind and the coordinator of many many other terrorist attacks, and he the man who claims his “blessed right hand beheaded Daniel Pearl. Now you may feel they are suffering torture being away from this sociopathic parent, I just don’t happen to agree with you. In fact, taking them away from this barbaric animal and the ilk he ran with, I not only don’t have a problem with it, I assert you would have to be insane if you wanted the boys to stay with him. But apparently you don’t agree.

  • Franco

    #57 — roger nowosielski

    “Another example of an ideology – or belief in some “higher” ideal, like fighting America’s enemies – overriding human values and makes people, like good ole Franco here, into a non-sentient being.”

    You assume the pessimistic with you claim “overriding human values” just as the person who thinks he sees the glass half empty. I don’t. Fighting America’s enemies based on human values is the “higher” ideal. I believe that is what most American have in their hearts and they strive and expect to see that glass half full. Maybe some day you’ll join us.

    #59 — roger nowosielski

    “I would say that the moment America starts speaking with the voice of good ol’ Franco here, then it deserves to fall.”

    The only reason in hasn’t’ fallen yet is because most Americans still see through all that same crap too. You’re getting ruffled over it only means it is challenging something you hold close to you.

    #62 — roger nowosielski

    “No, I don’t blame it on culture. I blame the individual – Franco and the rest of them. Why? Because they choose the easy way out. They did have examples of going the other way – the right way – but they chose differently and are forfeiting their humanity. And in so doing, they’re no longer individuals but machines.”

    roger, don’t blather on with your elitist banter, what specific statements of mine are you basing your accusations on?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’m far from getting or being ruffled, Franco. So at least try to characterize my comments correctly before we can move on to the next step.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Take your time, Cindy; we’ll talk tomorrow.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Franco,

    Pedophiles call what they do to children ‘love’.

    Changing words about doing harm, to make it sound like something harmless, doesn’t change facts to ethical people. It’s the same thing Bush did. It’s morally bankrupt.

    Protective custody in the US? For 4 months? Why would they need to leave their country, where they are familiar, to be protected? That makes no sense. They were flown to the US and ‘held’ (a nice word for not letting someone be free, otherwise known as ‘imprisonment’). In other words they were kidnapped and imprisoned.

    BTW, I found an article that does a much better job of analyzing the salient points regarding the possible torture of the children with insects.

    It makes this point:

    The CIA desired approval to use insects in their torture scheme. This was not well known, according to a report by Time Magazine. Did the accusers simply ‘get lucky’ 2 years in later when the memos were released?

    Is ‘enemy combatant’ a classification that is genetically transmissible to children?

  • Clavos

    Cindy,

    Sometimes, as on occasion in Vietnam, children are enemy combatants.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Clav,

    I understand there are child soldiers. I hope you didn’t miss my point, though, in this particular case.

  • Clavos

    I didn’t, Cindy.

    I just wanted to point out that the “innocence of youth” often isn’t — a number of those whose names are on The Wall died at the hands of “children.”

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Right, but who turned them that way?

  • Clavos

    Right, but who turned them that way?

    Not relevant to my point, Roger.

    The point is, they can be “turned,” and when they are, they’re just as dangerous and lethal as adults.

    A 14 year-old with an AK can blow someone away just as easily as a 40 year-old.

    “Children” can be, and often is in modern warfare, a relative term.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Agreed.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    Get back to me when you can. Some new insights to share.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I have everything written. I just have to condense it. so, give me an hour at most.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Can you though look into the problem I’m having with posting new articles? The site seems to be down and won’t let me save the draft. I tried Dave and Clavos but no response so far.

  • Clavos

    I tried Dave and Clavos but no response so far.

    I responded to you, Roger, on the same thread you asked me: Canada Rocks!

    Now that I know the question: Yes, the site is down; no one can access at this time.

    As of now, there’s no estimate as to when it will be back online.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy, I just wanted you to consider the extent to which a historical period and cultural influences of the times can make most people almost blind to categorical moral imperatives – before you turn in a full response. It’s somewhat in support of what you’re saying.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I made a test. It allows me to ‘preview’ but when I try to ‘save’ it just sits there halfway through. However when I leave the site, I return to find it is saved.

    (P.S. I am behind schedule and have to leave the house momentarily, so maybe two hours…)

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Also when I go back I can’t access it. It seems slow. A site problem, I suppose.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    It is, as Clavos confirmed it. Later then.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    #122

    Roger,

    Funny, in my response you’ll see that I think our positions aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather have a different focus, maybe because of a different goal or purpose.

    (whooops, looks like Clav already replied about the site issue)

    bbiab (be back in a bit)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, when you’ll get back, we can cover it more fully: important insights as of yesterday. Brought about by a great movie, The Other Boleyn Girl. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Thanks Roger, I will check that film out.

    Okay, let me post a little bit at a time. So, It’s not a giant post. But, this is not a full explanation. So, I’ll ask you to suspend your judgment ’til the end.

    (But do let me know if you need clarification.)

    You may be familiar with systems theory.

    A little background:

    As a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multiperspectival domain, the area brings together principles and concepts from ontology, philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology, and engineering as well as geography, sociology, political science, psychotherapy (within family systems therapy) and economics among others. Systems theory thus serves as a bridge for interdisciplinary dialogue between autonomous areas of study as well as within the area of systems science itself.

    I see it as a very helpful and important viewpoint or framework. A rough, expression of systems theory is: the parts interrelate to form the whole in a system. It can be applied to parts of the body making up a whole system–which is the body, or people being parts making up a society or a family, etc. It also is applied in learning theory and human development theory.

    A basic idea:

    In most cases the whole has properties that cannot be known from analysis of the constituent elements in isolation.

    I’ll say, it is also true this way:

    In most cases, the elements have properties that cannot be completely understood without examining the system they are a part of and their relationship to and within it.

    (Mind you, I’m not arguing against you here. This is merely a background for my personal point of reference. Which might be helpful in understanding what comes next.)

  • Clavos

    Cindy,

    I trust that systems theory incorporates much more than what you just posted, coz that can be summed up in the old aphorism (cliché?) that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’m going to suspend judgment, Cindy, till I hear more. Just wanted to reiterate that all I tried to do was to give a partial and incomplete description “moral language game” and argue on behalf of it’s relative primacy with respect to other considerations – personal, cultural, historical, etc.

    The description is naturally partial and incomplete because I only touched upon some of the features. Let’s bear in mind that one of the primary functions of this “language game” is exhortation.

    Now, if I were, for example, to focus on one moral concept out of the itinerary = such as justice, for instance, then I would be venturing on what’s called “conceptual analysis/”

    So anyway, I’m going to leave it at, for the time being, stressing again the key distinction I believe is at work here: between theory on the one hand and analysis on the other. And in so far that my predominant concern is with language, certain key concepts, how they work, and the language game they’re part of (and constitute), I have therefore attempted to provide a partial analysis – as opposed to theory.

    Back to you.

    Roger

  • Think About It

    America is indeed exceptional. It is the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t have a socialist or labor party which leaves voters with much less choice at the ballot box, not something to be proud of. America is exceptional in its hubris and arrogance to be sure. It leads the world in the number of incarcerated people; it has the worst health care system in the industrialized world; it spends the most on its military; it has an exceptionally bad educational system; it leads the industrialized world in income inequality; it also leads the industrialized world in the amount of crooked influence that lobbyists can buy from their government. See? America is truly exceptional after all.

    Exceptionally horrid.

  • STM

    Just found this again. A bit of Australian exceptionalism . The beautiful, airbrushed remnants of a South Pacific cyclone.

    And a bit more Aussie exceptionalism.. A whirlwind, not a cyclone.

    America might be a great place for a holiday, but why would you want to live anywhere else but where I grew up – it’s always a holiday here – (except for Hawaii, or just maybe New Zealand)????

    Nice waves, a game of football, hanging’ out with your mates, a cool woman, a beer or five, a barbecue, a long day in the warm sun at the beach or on a boat … seriously, what else is there, what else matters?

    Not much else, really … Americans can believe they’re exceptional, or not – but exceptional means different things to different folks.