Blow out the candles and say a prayer

May 2nd, 2011 § 12 comments

I expected my muted, somewhat sheepish reaction last night to be a place-holder for a nasty, anti-jingoistic rant, but now that the steam has cooled, that rant no longer seems necessary, appropriate, or heartfelt.

I would, though, like to clarify that I meant no disrespect by my un-celebratory mood; I genuinely don’t understand the cause for celebration. I would attribute this partly to an anti-celebratory bias; saying that I don’t like to celebrate my birthday wasn’t just meant to be cute. In my mind, all celebration is tempered by duty and doubt and tinged with pessimism—after all, the next inflection point is invariably a trough—and at that point, there’s not much room left for catharsis.

To celebrate “righting” a tremendous amount of destruction without any hope of undoing a single iota of that destruction is—in my book—no celebration at all. The act of retaliation was itself another act of destruction—small, perhaps, by comparison to the act being retaliated and arguably instrumental toward prevention of further destruction (not my point to debate)—but it was nonetheless destructive. Because the initial act of destruction is not only part cause but the effective¬†reason for the smaller destructive act, I consider the two inseparable; celebrating the latter necessarily celebrates the former to some degree, or outright ignores it.

You may disagree with that logic, and¬†I suppose you could argue the same if, say, tomorrow we found a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. And while I don’t deny that this would be fantastic news, I’m not sure how heartily I could celebrate that either. The undoable destruction would leave me at least a little pensive, if overwhelmingly hopeful.

What happened last night, though, was an appalling end to an appalling series of events instigated and escalated by appallingly destructive human choices. To celebrate it like the birth of a first child is not just reckless but, I think, perverse. I apologize if this sounds like obnoxious finger-wagging, but honestly, that’s what it’s meant to be.

It’s quite possible—some would say likely—that civilized human society and the very continuation of our species is more imperiled than most of us come close to acknowledging. I hope it wouldn’t take our collective demise to regret past celebrations of human destruction, but if seeing three countries in less than two years nearly obliterated by natural disaster hasn’t reformed us, I don’t see many other possibilities.

(For further thoughts by better writers, I recommend Will Wilkinson and Dennis Perrin.)

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§ 12 Responses to Blow out the candles and say a prayer"

  • Matthew Manning says:

    The reason I don’t follow your logic is that its maximization is actually the undergirding of nihilism. I guess if you are a nihilist, then more power to you (or, ostensibly, no…power…to you). I doubt, however, that you even come close my dear scruffy-haired dullard. You wouldn’t be so intimately engaged in pop culture, current events, and French fashion if it weren’t for some feeling of connection with your external milieu, even if only as a means of fleeting fascination.

    If we don’t celebrate or berate anything due to an expectation of future disappointment or success in the future, then we are functionally paralyzed from placing value judgments on anything (especially those things that we feel are *perversely* correlative to our visceral emotional human response). On a long enough timeline, such a position (non? position) places one in a category separate from us “plebs” living out the human experience, partaking in a rousing cheer on behalf of a double-tap to the temporal lobe of a madman that most definitely didn’t give a shit about the cosmic scales of right and wrong save for a narrow scope of focus on his own subjective world-view. True, the NYC skyline isn’t repaired and dead Arabs and Americans didn’t rise – but it is completely beyond your purview to speculate what has been restored, rebuilt, or righted in the intangible realm of the hearts and minds of the victims and their families.

    So pick up a damn pint glass and raise it to the roof. Osama’s dead. You’re alive. This was the only way to teach him the ultimate lesson: it doesn’t feel good to be dead. We could tell him that ad nauseum, but we really had to SHOW him that to understand the concept completely.

    For homework, I want you to consider if you maintain your stoic, non-participative, emotionally detached approach while watching sporting events? (Marquette in the Sweet 16? Who cares…they’ll probably lose the Maui Invitational).

    Be well.

  • Vinnie says:

    I’ve completed your homework assignment and concluded that my emotional attachments to sports teams aren’t nearly what you seem to think they are (the movement of my emotional needle just now hearing the Bulls lose on my fuzzy clock radio was scarcely detectable), though I’m still not sure how it’s relevant. I think it’s pretty obvious that I am making a value judgment. A value judgment on blood lust. It’s BAD. Is that what you’re looking for? Because honestly, I’m not sure I believe it, so maybe nihilism isn’t so far off. French fashion, you say? Evidently I don’t know my own sophistication. I’m still not sure whether you’ve refuted me—maybe take it down a level to my plane?—though I’m certain you’ve belittled me quite thoroughly. As always, I appreciate it. :-)

  • Matthew Manning says:

    I will concede that you “feel” the way that you do as long as you concede that your position is more of a reflection of your personality than your values.

    I meant Civil War reenactment, not French fashion.

  • Vinnie says:

    I’ll do you one better and concede that everything I ever say is more a reflection of my personality than my values. Clearly, I gave up on objectivity and coherence a long time ago. If I hadn’t, I could hardly put a sentence together. (I say that like it would be a problem.)

  • Nate says:

    Look at emotions as evolutionary adaptations, and it makes a bit more sense.

    Celebration (or any other positive, feel-good emotion) motivates creatures to try to repeat whatever it is that they just did. On the flip side, guilt, sorrow and any other negative, feel-bad emotion will motivates creatures to avoid repeating whatever it is that they just did.

    Our ancestors that felt joy toward events that improved their reproductive fitness and sorrow toward events that hurt their reproductive fitness were winners in the gene pool, because they would be motivated to repeat the former events and avoid the latter. These emotional tendencies have been passed on to us, so that our emotions direct us to act in ways that benefit our genes.

    But not all of these fitness-improving positive emotions are worth encouraging. Our ancestors (and even modern day humans) benefit from seeking revenge, even irrational revenge, because if you earn a reputation of never seeking revenge, people will wrong you over and over with no reason to fear any bad consequences. Because revenge offers improved fitness, we celebrate the successful completion of revenge. This emotional reward encourages us to do it again. Furthermore, the more PUBLIC our celebration, the more we send the message to others, “Don’t wrong me, or I will wrong you back twice as hard. I get off on it.”

    The celebration of Osama’s death is nothing more than our brains telling us we did a good job. “Keep up the vengeful attitude!” And it really is meant to send the message: Don’t fuck with America.

    I think revenge belongs in the same category as lying, cheating, racism and disregard for the elderly and disabled. These are all emotions that are programed into our brains because they benefit our genes. But any society’s success depends on its ability to minimize the selfish behavior of individuals. Vengeance is, when it’s all said and done, a selfish behavior.

    Now before anyone asks the question, I’ll answer it. So do I think that we shouldn’t have killed Osama Bin Laden. Of course not. That’s ridiculous. Who would ask such a stupid question? No. Killing Bin Laden (or locking him up for life) is justice, and it prevents him from doing more harm. But the CELEBRATION aspect of the whole situation has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with vengeance.

  • Nate says:

    Sorry, I know I already left a super long comment, but something else just occurred to me. There are two separate aspects of this particular Celebration.

    The one I mostly refer to above is the actual joy that people felt when hearing the news that Osama is dead. The little rush of endorphins that momentarily flooded their brains.

    More visible is the continued physical celebration, which is more akin to the birthday-party style celebration. While the shot of happy drugs our brains give us is (as I said above) a motivator to repeat actions, this celebration is happening on a more social scale. It is a social form of endorphins.

    In the same way that individuals benefited from earning a reputation of vengeance, so do groups of people. Human tribes that showed a tendency toward revenge were less likely to be wronged. But evoking fear of retaliation is not the only way to protect yourself from attack. You can simply not have anything (or not appear to have anything) that others would want. Or, more commonly, you can prove yourself to be a valuable cooperator, so that other tribes stand to gain more by cooperating with you than by attacking you and trying to steal from you.

    Of course, if you are a hoarding tribe that wants to take way more than your share of the goods, then your only option for eliciting cooperation and avoiding attack is to evoke fear of retaliation. The Mafia operates this way. So does America. America has way more than its fair share of the worlds resources, and as long as we’re unwilling to play nice with the other countries, our only option is to earn the reputation of a vengeful mob boss.

  • Vinnie says:

    Ah, thank you. Much more helpful than certain other readers’ comments, MANNING. (Just kidding… You know I like the abuse.) I think my attitude toward the celebrating masses is actually more charitable than yours. I think there was a lot of appreciation for the soldiers in those cheers and honest cathartic relief that their Bogeyman is dead. After a day of anxious rumination, I regret the “finger-wagging” comment. Those weren’t my words; that was Extreme Pacifist Vinnie taking over for a sentence. Median Disposition Vinnie would say, “I respect the free expression of your emotions regarding the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, even if I don’t understand it and choose not to react in kind.” But clearly, there was an aspect of patriotic pep rally to the celebrations, and I question how much pause was given to consider how the victims and their families might feel about that.

  • Nate says:

    Yeah, I suppose painting vengeful celebration as 100% selfish is missing the mark.

    Group vengeance is part compassion for In-Group Members and part hatred for Out-Group Members. I ignored the compassionate aspect in my above comments. But I do find it hard to separate the two. If compassion for fellow members of our tribe is reliant on displays of intolerance toward other tribe members… well, there are just better ways of showing compassion I suppose. You know, support the troops, but hate the war.

  • Evil Mammoth says:

    I’m fatigued and mostly incoherent at the moment, so this will be relatively brief and likely ill-formed.

    While I like (and resort to) a good dose of evolutionary psychological speculation—an unwieldy term, no doubt—I think it’s simply more accurate to say, in this case, that the reasons for celebration (and for opposing) it are many and, thus, are likely unable to be described as the offspring of any one predominant trait.

    Some people have met bin Laden’s death with a sense of retribution and vengeance; some have celebrated with a sigh of relief. If those sensations stem from some acquired evolutionary advantage, it seems to me the origins may be considerably different. (I often meet speculation with speculation. It’s just how things get done, isn’t it?)

    Those on the other side of the coin either simplistically oppose this celebration by using the evil-begets-evil argument or cite the lack of a clear-cut political outcome.

    I find myself somewhere in the middle. I have no qualms about Osama bin Laden having been killed, nor do I take any issue with the manner in which he met that end. However, I can see the irony in our denouncing the images we’ve been given from the Middle East showing hordes of people burning American flags and celebrating various attacks on American citizens, and then propagating a very similar sort of celebration on our own soil. (To agree with some commenter somewhere who called out a knee-jerk pacifist—keyword: knee-jerk—there is a profound difference between dancing on the graves of a thousand innocents and dancing on the grave of the man who killed them.)

    What seems clear to me is that the reactions we’re seeing, the reactions we may even be experiencing ourselves, are as complicated as the question of whether this operation actually achieved anything. (I, like Vinnie, have been mulling this over at some length.)

    (Frankly, I think you may have hinted at this, Nate, in your clarification. It’s even possible that this pitiful little screed was entirely unwarranted; but I’ve taken the time to pen it, and now it must be posted, goddammit. As much as I turn to evolution for behavioral clues, I just think it’s necessary to check the instinct we may have to conveniently parse behaviors into strata we imagine to exist. We are animals, to be sure, but higher cognition probably obscures and changes the manifestation of many of our baser instincts, though that isn’t to say we aren’t driven by them in a significant way, a way that is often grievously underappreciated. I mostly agree with you, though, with some reservation.)

  • Nate says:

    Everything I said is oversimplified, to be sure. Everything I EVER say is oversimplified, and everything ANYONE ever says is oversimplified.

    When we humans enter the realm of trying to understand why stuff happens, we are restricted by our cognitive abilities and generally irrational (and often outright false) perception of the world around us. When we humans try to explain these thoughts, we are further restricted by the shortcomings of language.

    So I did not mean to imply Single Causation (though I obviously did). I was just trying to find the most likely and strongest causes, which I suspect are our individual and societal tendencies toward revenge.

    I try to avoid ever saying “It’s super complicated, so that’s that,” because everything is super complicated. Our very existence is a result of an infinite amount of matter and anti-matter interacting and reacting simultaneously. Anyone who is not Stephen Hawking has no chance at even beginning to grasp the Big Picture.

    But while it is always tempting to throw my hands in the air and whisper “busy, busy, busy,” (Bokononism reference – I can’t help myself) I go after what I can and try to understand as much as possible, while doing my best to continually remind myself that any answer I come to is only a partial answer.

    There should be some kind of txt-speak abbreviation for “I know this is ridiculously oversimplified, but I am trying to work within the constraints of my feeble mind and my even feebler language.” Alas…

  • Vinnie says:

    How about “W__W”? Sort of looks like two hands waving, no? Ok, not at all. Best I could come up with, though.

  • Evil Mammoth says:

    Points well taken, Nate; and I can always appreciate a reference to Bokonon even if boko-maru always struck me as profoundly unhygienic unless performed directly after a shower.

    Consequently, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was throwing up my hands either. My primary caution was that we should treat speculation, even solid speculation, properly—as an outline instead of a reference book. While everything (perhaps an overreaching word) is likely oversimplified, I differentiate between simplification and reductionism, between focusing the lens and simply cropping the picture.

    This is all just a pretentious way of saying I agree with you but that I want to reinforce my own caveats.

    “…I go after what I can and try to understand as much as possible, while doing my best to continually remind myself that any answer I come to is only a partial answer.”

    Just looked back on your comment and found this to be pretty much my stance as well, almost verbatim.

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