Paying attention

001042-e000000595We have been watching a re-run of the series “The First World War” which is based upon Professor Hew Strachan’s book. It is difficult to watch as the body count increases, the weapons are improved, the destruction is immense and the idiocy of war is front and centre. The twentieth century must be the cruellest of centuries as we humans engage in war after bloody war. I kept thinking, while watching the series, that every politician and every religious person should watch this and remember the past.

We humans do not seem particularly good at learning from our mistakes. Driven by the worst emotions we lurch from war to war while at the same time destroying the environment around us.


About ten years ago I [Richard Marshall] interviewed Noam Chomsky, and the first question I asked him was why, with all the irons he has in the fire, he dedicates so much time to engaging with philosophers. He said his concern was really part of a more general concern – that “it should trouble us that we’re not thinking about what we’re up to, and those questions happen to be the domain of what philosophers pay attention to.” I feel that there are just too many human enterprises that are not being subjected to critical thinking, and the problem is getting worse rapidly.

“what the hell are we doing here?”

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23 thoughts on “Paying attention

  1. Many people throughout the years have said history repeats itself. George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But those who CAN remember are swept along by the majority who can’t. Andre Gide said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Most of us today are just plain tired of war and the threat of war. I’ve often wondered . . . if women controlled the world’s governments, would there be no more wars?


    • Tara, I loved your comment up to — but not including — the very last sentence.

      The answer to your question is, I think, a definite no: changing the sex, race, ethnicity, etc. etc. of the world’s governments will not stop there from being wars. But many ideologies that have led us to war have done so by presenting the view that certain biological types of people need to be got out of the way so that certain other people can take the reins and bring us perpetual peace.


      • JK – I disagree.

        U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says the lack of skirts in the Senate is more than a symbolic concern. “My own experience in Congress is when women are on committees and at hearings, the nature of the discussion is different, and the outcomes are better — we reach better solutions, better decisions are made.” And would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? A challenging new book by the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker says that the answer is “yes”:


        • BOB – Most women are NOT like Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher. Just think about Todd Akin (“Mr. Rape”), Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (“God intended” the rape), and Sen. Ted Cruz (“shut the government down”).


        • True, Tara: most women are not like Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher. And most men are not like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, or Ted Cruz. The importance of considering Thatcher and Palin (among many other women) is not that they are typical, but that they provide evidence against the hypothesis that things would be different in a good way if women were in power. I’ve spoken to some people who entertained these sorts of conjectures in the ’60s and ’70s and for that reason thought that Thatcher would be a good influence on British politics. They later realized that they were quite foolish.

          What all five of these people have in common is the drive to gain positions of political power. That is a vastly more important characteristic in determining how they will act than their genitalia or other physical attributes, it seems.

          The editorial you cite admits that the track record of women in politics so far has not been more promising than the track record of men, but suggests the reason might be that women haven’t yet changed the entire political system to be more feminine. This really sounds to me like baseless and fanciful speculation to try to salvage a problematic claim that women are naturally more gentle and cooperative. Differences of aggression between men and women seem easily explainable as a result of socialization: girls and boys are still raised very differently.

          Of course, one can always keep speculating that people of one sex are inherently more warlike than people of another, just as racists like to speculate that people of one race are inherently more violent than people of another. The evidence suggests that these hypotheses are unlikely to be true. But it’s worse than that: they’re offensive, limiting, and misleading (e.g. they could lead people to think that Hilary Clinton would be a less warlike Democratic leader than Dennis Kucinich, for instance).


  2. I read undertones of a bias against women (BECAUSE we’re women) in some of the comments, above. Margaret Thatcher was right on the one issue that mattered in her time – the need for socialism to be defeated both in Britain and in the World. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, together, were the reason the Soviet Union went from world domination to downfall in 10 years, the 10 years of the woman the Soviets called the Iron Lady. Where other British leaders had been timid, she was bold. Where they had been silent, she was vocal. Where they had been shaky, she was resolute. She understood exactly what the Soviet Union was and meant.

    U.S. News and World Report’s 10 worst U.S. presidents:
    10. Zachary Taylor – the least politically attuned man to occupy the White House in American history, ignorant, one might say, to the point of innocence.
    9. Herbert Hoover (tied with Nixon) – a poor communicator who fueled trade wars and exacerbated the Depression.
    9. Richard Nixon – though he was politically gifted and had vision, he had uneven judgment and a deeply suspicious character verging on delusional (Watergate and his resignation).
    8. William Henry Harrison – never had a chance, because he died of pneumonia 30 days after his inauguration.
    7. Ulysses S. Grant – although he had good intentions, he presided over an outbreak of graft and corruption and said, “My failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”
    6. John Tyler – a stalwart defender of slavery who abandoned his party’s platform once he was president, his entire cabinet resigned, and he had to fight an impeachment attempt.
    5. Millard Fillmore – backed the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Southern secession by allowing slavery to spread.
    4. Franklin Pierce – His fervor for expanding the borders—thereby adding several slave states—helped set the stage for the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt said Pierce was “…a servile tool of men worse than himself…ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.”
    3. Andrew Johnson – survived impeachment after opposing Reconstruction initiatives including the 14th amendment because of his political ineptitude and astonishing indifference toward the plight of the newly freed African-Americans.
    2. Warren G. Harding – an ineffectual and indecisive leader who played poker while his friends plundered the U.S. treasury.
    1. James Buchanan – refused to challenge either the spread of slavery or the growing bloc of states that became the Confederacy.

    sob1989 is right.


    • Two things:
      1, If “sob1989 is right” is right then everything above “sob1989 is right” is not relevant.
      2. The fear of socialism sounds pathological. You must be from the USA!


      • …or England. In those days “socialism” meant “communism,” especially those, like me, born at the start of WWII and schooled in the 1950s. The worst was when Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba in the early 1960s. Communism and “the bomb” was a real worry for my country. Pathological? Not on your life.


        • Ah yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s ‘the worst’, eh? Let’s see:

          The US had set up nuclear weapons _on the Turkish border with the USSR_, aimed at Moscow.
          The US then violated international law by attempting to overthrow the Cuban government to make it friendly to US business interests.
          The USSR announced that it was sending missiles to Cuba to ward off any future attempts by the US to interfere with Cuba’s government.
          The US, under Kennedy, threatened to go to war over those missiles, on the grounds that they would be 90 miles from the US border.
          The USSR, under Kruschev, agreed not to send Cuba the weapons on the condition that the US remove its weapons from Turkey.
          Kennedy’s advisors reminded him that the US was going to remove those weapons from Turkey anyway, so they could keep the Soviet weapons away from Cuba at no cost whatsoever.
          But Kennedy decided not to resolve the situation peacefully at no cost to himself. Instead, he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.


    • Hang on, Tara. Wasn’t your whole point before that wars might stop if enough women were in political power? And yet, you seem to support Margaret Thatcher, a woman who started the Falkland Islands War, who famously urged Bush Sr. to go to war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, and so on. And you yourself describe her as being bolder and louder than other (male) world leaders.

      Have you reversed your position about women being less warlike? I’m confused!

      Also, I’m not sure why you suggest the only reason to be anti-Thatcher has to do with sexism. She is hated by many people, male and female, because of her track record. Among other things:
      – She destroyed the unions in Britain;
      – She actively supported horrific dictators, in particular Pinochet, in their atrocities against humanity;
      – She deregulated and sold off huge swaths of public goods and properties;
      – She allowed crime rates to double under her tenure as Prime Minister despite the country’s facing no economic hardship (due to the North Sea oil revenues, which she squandered);
      – She deregulated finance in Britain;
      – She did serious damage to the British welfare state;

      I’m not really sure why you included the US News and World Report rankings of worst US presidents, but I have to say that whoever compiled that list must be an imbecile. In any remotely plausible list of the worst presidents in US history, George W. Bush would _have_ to make the top three. And yet, he’s not even listed! Neither is Ronald Reagan, who was as bad as Thatcher and caught in political scandals as well (Iran-Contra). Nixon, who made the list, was surely a bad president; but Reagan was much worse than Nixon and Bush Jr. was _vastly_ worse than Reagan!


    • I once knew someone who surprised everyone by musing that perhaps the reason why black people are convicted of violent crimes more than white people, and the reason why so many African countries have problems with political violence, stems from a genetic difference between whites and blacks. Some people were simply disgusted by his saying that, but a few of us engaged him with facts and arguments in an effort to show why he was wrong.

      Like you, he objected that he hadn’t wanted to start a debate.

      Since it takes two people to have a debate, I think what he meant to say was that he didn’t want to have his views criticized and argued against.

      But if he didn’t, of course, then he shouldn’t have publicly said something so provocative!


    • Nobody here has been sarcastic, as far as I can see; and the only (mild, and now refuted) personal attack I’ve noted in the discussion has been _your_ suggestion that those who disagree with you are motivated by a bias against women. So if your policy is not to participate in discussions when they become personal and sarcastic, there’s no need for you to stop participating in this one.

      If you do wish to keep participating, I for one would be keen to hear your response to the points made so far. If you don’t, then I guess we have to assume you concede the points in light of the objections.

      Either way, merry Christmas!


    • Oh, hang on: I just remembered that sfualum said “the fear of socialism sounds pathological.” was this the ‘personal’ comment you’re thinking of?


  3. In the original post I wrote:
    “We humans do not seem particularly good at learning from our mistakes. Driven by the worst emotions we lurch from war to war . . .”
    and then quoted from the interview, “I feel that there are just too many human enterprises that are not being subjected to critical thinking, and the problem is getting worse rapidly.”
    The original post launched a discussion that I have found interesting and worthy of thinking about in a critical way – thanks to all of the participants. (in fact dozens have read the comments even if they have not all joined in) I don’t find any warlike sarcasm or any nastiness in the conversation.

    One of the features of critical thinking and a robust exchange of ideas is that from time to time one puts his/her ideas on the line to be analyzed. Others then point out weaknesses in the ideas by “attacking” the accuracy or the form of the argument used to make a point or support a thesis. We can learn from our mistakes! One way of doing so is to review the sorts of mistakes people often make. Here is a good place to start.

    Thanks again to all participants in this and all of our discussions! Continue to be kind to each other by being critical and thoughtful. Remember philosophy is “the love of wisdom”.


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