Archive for July 2008

Meaning and Time

July 18, 2008

Looking through a set of space photographs, with back-dated times of estimated existence set at anything from a few light years to many million, and thinking of the estimated time before even our sun burns out, makes one think again of the role of time and one’s own life span. The lesson is that all events and all existences are temporary. Since they are temporary, meaning must be discovered in the passing moments of life. This was the message of Omar Khayyam. His solution was to find a shady tree, a beautiful girl, and a jug of wine. But this is not the only way to deal with these well-known, although generally ignored facts. The essential message of existentialism is that we must find meaning in the moment. Idealistically, we can search for ways to achieve tiny victories over the insensitivty and cruelty that we see around us. We could, understanding that the United States is unlikely to last more than a few hundred years, put our puny efforts into making our country a better society, one that could once again be a model for others. This will help future generations, perhaps several generations. The fact that the benefit will eventually be dispersed, dwindling away to nothing among the waves of change that are sure to occur, does not mean that we will not have accomplished something of value. All accomplishments are temporary. We cannot change that. It is simply the medium in which we work.

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Making Nuclear Weapon Sense

July 18, 2008

It was heartening to read in the New York Times the appreciation of the recent proposals of Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and associates (Editorial Observer, Robbins “Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons” June 30) to move decisively in the next administration toward a world without nuclear weapons. It has always been a dangerous anomaly that the United States tries to compel other nations to give up their plans to develop nuclear weapons while we have remained unwilling to make decisive steps toward freeing the world of our own nuclear weapons and the policy
alternatives they imply.

For a full version of the Nunn approach read “The Mountaintop: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, a speech he gave in Oslo on February 27 of this year.

Such an initiative would be more convincing if we could at the same time as we talk of reducing weapons also change the way in which we talk about them. We have continued to threaten the absolute destruction of opponents should they use nuclear weapons. This commitment has only been reinforced by the public statements of the political contestants in our upcoming elections when they speak of obliterating Iran should it attempt at some future point to use nuclear weapons. The United States, and perhaps the United States alone, has the capability to take the lead in abandoning this way of speaking about nuclear weapons. In many situations, particularly against countries such as Iran, we could with the conventional forces at our disposal make a decisive and effective response without the use of nuclear weapons.

Only after we renounce the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, will we be able to make a convincing case against their development by others.

Jefferson on Freedom and Independence

July 5, 2008

I have not been pleased with the efforts of the New York Times latest conservative Op-Ed writer, Bill Kristol. He has seemed to be much too predictably right. However, on June 30, he weighted in with a column on the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson that would make any liberal proud. It seems that his family does a yearly reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. And this year he intends to add Jefferson’s letter to Weightman declining an invitation to take part in the July fourth celebration written just a few days before his death.

Writing of the Declaration, Jefferson says: “May it be to the world what I believe it will be, to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Jefferson goes on to see this as the result of the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, and thus as part of the general progress of science. It reminds me of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Jefferson’s optimism was a little premature. Yet, I would argue, not wrong.

But as we read Jefferson’s comments, we are reminded that he was not thinking so much of forms of government as the human rights of freedom and self-determination. All people would eventuyqally realiza that people were equal and needed to be treated as such. One people or class should not have another telling them what to do. This brings us back to the more general question of what we mean, and what most people in the world mean by “freedom”. Thus it appears that the Afghans and Iraqis and many others would rather have independence than democracy. Democracy is a method of governing and not in itself a value for most people, perhaps not even for Americans who are well known to be reluctant participants in democratic processes.