Archive for September, 2010

Defending the Undefendable

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Meet Dr. Walter Block: a man born in New York who started his early career as an academic embracing the egalitarian ideals of liberalism.

This was, of course, until he met Ayn Rand.

People well informed of the libertarian school of thought will be quick to realize that Ayn Rand provided the philosophical backbone for America’s about-face in socioeconomic policy from a gracious welfare state towards one that relies increasingly on free-market fundamentals. Rand’s influence are far-reaching: she counts among her disciples big names such as Alan Greenspan—the former chairman of the Fed, and Ronald Reagan—the man who made neo-conservatism more digestible, and thus more widely supported by the populace (think Reaganomics).

In the mid-1960’s the young and liberal-minded Walter Block engaged in an academic battle against people such as Rand and other notable libertarians of the day. Both sides proclaimed the superiority of their ideals, and the two intellectual camps decided to wage the war of words and ideas upon each other at occasional luncheons, a very benign way to settle a war at that.

Unfortunately for sympathizers of liberalism, Block’s defense of egalitarianism eventually collapsed, and shortly after he was converted to the libertarian faith. Block, now a supporter of laissez-faire capitalist anarchism, is a member of the Austrian School of Economics and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

It is clear that Block is one of the most vociferous and staunchest supporter of freedom and individual liberty today. In his book “Defending the Undefendable,” he applies the non-agression axiom—the cornerstone of liberatarian philosophy—in some of the most extreme cases.

In the book, Block eloquently and wittily presents his rational and systematic refutational analysis of the common misconceptions harbored against various members of society. In other words, Block illustrates the misguided public opprobrium leveled at a total of 32 types of social pariahs, which include blackmailers, counterfeiters, crooked cops, drug pushers, drug addicts, employers of child labor, and even people who yell “fire” in theatres. In each of these cases, Block presents a well-reasoned argument that depicts these people as heroic members of society.

For instance, one may be quick to proclaim that the blackmailer is a villainous figure. After all, he knows something embarrassing or harmful about an individual and is threatening to reveal it to the public! Thus, isn’t it quite obvious that the blackmailer is evil incarnate?

Block argues no. In fact, he reasons, “the sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking—for a price. In a sense, the gossip is much worse than a blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailee a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning. Is not the person with a secret better off at the hands of a blackmailer, than a gossip? With the gossip, all is lost; with the blackmailer, one can only gain, or at least be no worse off.” (p. 42-43).

So then, the blackmailer may be the lesser of two evils perhaps, but what of those who employ children as child laborers? Aren’t these people exploiting children? Isn’t this a morally reprehensible practice that must be banished from modern society in all nations?

Against this notion, Block first elucidates the fallacy of the notion of “adulthood,” which is nothing more than “the age of 21 […] an arbitrary cutoff point.” (p. 245). He then reminds readers, “there is first the problem that several, if not many 10 year olds, have a greater grasp of political, social, historical, psychological, and economic factors, presumably the factors that enable one to vote ‘wisely’ than do many people over the age of 21.” (p. 245).

Basically, he’s talking about child geniuses.

So then, if the exact time at which a child becomes an adult is arbitrarily dictated by society, when, exactly, does a child become an adult?

“A child becomes an adult,” Block states, “not when he reaches some arbitrary age limit, but rather when he does something to establish his ownership and control over his own person.”

Thus if a child’s mental capacities are capable of self-ownership, then he is ready to be acknowledged as an adult. And because the child is now an adult, he may enter voluntary labor contracts as he pleases.

In this manner, Block takes reader on a journey on why none of the “disgraceful” occupations in society are morally reprehensible and roots his logic deep in the virtues of libertarianism—namely, the efficiency of market fundamentals, the ridiculous notion of “moral” or “immoral” societal roles when in fact all societal roles are amoral, and of course, the grandest axiom of libertarianism: “it is illegitimate to engage in aggression as nonagressors.” (p. xiii).

This leaves us with one simple, provocative question: what of the link of amoral markets and moral-minded human beings, and how should we construct an academic framework for such an inquiry?


Sensing Nature

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

The latest exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, which will be on display until November 7th, is aptly named “Sensing Nature”—a collaborative work by world-renown Japanese artists Tokujin Yoshioka, Taro Shinoda, and Takashi Kuribayashi.

Showcasing some of the masterpieces of the three artists, the exhibit subtly imposes the question of “rethinking the Japanese perception of nature.”

And masterpieces they are. Those who view the exhibit are first greeted by Yoshioka’s “Snow,” which recreates the seemingly fantasy-like quality of snow. Yoshioka achieves this feat using 15 meters of enclosed open space, a fan, and 300 kilograms of feathers. The fan spins every now and then, causing the feathers to fly, float, and fall to the ground, leaving visitors the impression that they’re actually watching snow fall slowly to the ground.

Curious patrons of the Mori Art Museum then proceed to view the works of Taro Shinoda, who has been working on the theme of the “connection between man and nature.” Among his intriguing works is the Ginga—a series of water-filled bottles with air tubes hang from the ceiling that releases a droplet of water simultaneously, causing the white milky water in a round pool below to ripple. The resulting effect is nothing short of spectacular; observers feel the slightest sense of a disturbance in the water’s “harmony,” an iconic symbol of the Japanese notion of natural beauty.

Shinoda reveals that his work Ginga was inspired by the Hojo garden at Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto, which was designed by Shigemori Mirei, a notable Showa-era Japanese landscape artist. The east garden is a karesansui—a dry landscape—and features stars arranged in a Big Dipper motif that ‘shine’ by way of a pattern of furrows raked in the gravel. Shinoda effectively recreates the waxing and waning starlight of the Milky Way in his eccentric work.

Lastly, visitors to the museum enjoy the works of Takashi Kuribayashi, a legendary Japanese artist who specializes in nihonga. His works show how one’s perspectives can change with different locations, which he achieves by dividing his works into certain different layers.

While notions of Japanese shintoism were faintly perceptible, contemporary questions related to traditional worship of nature, such as neo-animism, neo-drudism, and a resurgence of voodoo rituals were left largely untouched. However, the artists’ creativity is certainly no short of genius, and their choice of materials (such as feathers for snow and white cardboard for a forest) invokes within the patron a sense of child-like glee as she makes her way about enjoying the works.

Right in the heart of Tokyo, the exhibit delivers a captivating experience for Tokyoites and urbanites hailing from around the world to see the beauty that nature has to offer. If anything, the museum is undeniably fun, and the minimalism of the exhibition space acts as a temporary retreat from the urban sprawl.


Who Started the Fire?

Monday, September 6th, 2010

In 1989, Billy Joel released his song “We didn’t start the fire,” a song that catalogues the events that took place throughout Mr. Joel’s lifetime. The overall message of the song is clear: the baby boomer generation—of which Mr. Joel himself is also a part of—was not to be blamed for the downsides and shortcomings of society. After all, these societal ills were around before the baby boomers were born, so thus, argues Mr. Joel, his generation should not be held accountable for historical responsiblities.

The song’s lyrics references dozens of historical accounts, events, and people all the way from Marilyn Monroe to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion at a dizzying speed, adding to the songwriter’s case that societal events occur in such a manner that no particular generation can be singled out and found at fault.

Two decades have passed since Mr. Joel’s song charted #1 on the U.S. billboard top 100, and now a new generation of people, most popularly christened the children of the “digital age,” have come into existence. Though there has been an easing of finger-pointing over the years, the question still remains: are historical responsibilities inter-generational?

This question was proposed this year on August 25th at The University of Tokyo by Harvard professor of philosophy Dr. Michael Sandel. He asked the mostly Japanese audience of 300—picked by NHK out of an 8,000 strong applicant base—whether or not today’s generation of Japanese have any responsibilities for the crimes committed by previous generations.

Dr. Sandel, of course, was talking about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II.

The audience found itself divided into two camps: one claimed that historical responsibilities are inter-generational, since each generation is built upon the achievements and faults of the previous one. In contrast, the other camp asserted that there are social paradigmatic shifts brought about by galvanizing change, which makes the idea of a Darwinian-Marxist model of an “evolutionary path of society” untenable.

This question is particularly interesting because the interpretations of the link between the concept of time and the concept of society clash most often at the country-level.

Both views of historical responsibility based upon a particular interpretation of time raised at Dr. Sandel’s lecture at The University of Tokyo were mentioned by Benedict Anderson mentions this in his book “Imagined Communities.”

 “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time,” he observes, “is a precise analogue of the idea of nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” (p.26)

Which lies in stark contrast to the argument against this notion, namely a “more Foucauldian sense of abrupt discontinuities of consciousness.” (p.28).

The crucial fact that we must realize here is that historical responsibilities where the parties involved are at the nation-state level are mostly issues of restorative justice, and have little to do with the true academic inquiry of the time-society link.

What we ought to be analyzing, therefore, is whether or not restorative justice really eases the pain of the victimized party, or rather leaves the victimized party grinning after he has successfully capitalized on the descendants of the relenting aggressor.

Historical texts seem to indicate that events in history underscore man’s ineptitude to have amicable relations at the nation-state level. Large-scale wars have only been decreasing in the past half-century because of the deterrence offered by nuclear weapons and the birth of supranational organizations, however infantile and largely powerless they may still be.

The case for time-society links and the larger philosophical context in which it ought to be analyzed should be done, first and foremost, by consulting the notions of collective memory forwarded by Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher. Whereas “history” shared by nation-states inevitably introduces politics, shared experiences and collective memory of mankind as a species are factual and actuary.

Perhaps then, the notion of collective memory may be the nitrogen that finally extinguishes the “fire” Mr. Joel had mentioned in his masterwork song.