Category Archives: musings (random daily thoughts)

morals (in which I anoint myself a philosopher)

 

 

Perhaps a present-day Edmund Burke.

 

 

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I was discussing politics with a friend yesterday. Mostly President Trump. (I have had similar recent discussions with my wife.)

I find Trump’s habitual lying hard to comprehend. How could anyone make bald faced lies that are a priori untrue? Such as that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that cable news host and former Representative Joe Scarborough is a suspect in murdering an aide, that Joe Biden is a pedophile? And, then, when such statements and unfounded accusations are shown to be false, never retract the statement?

This is not the same as something that politicians routinely do — in a political campaign, say — take something that is partly true or possibly could become so and put a spin on it: e.g., Joe Biden is beholden to the radical left and will carry out their agenda.

 

 

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Regarding the cardinal sin of dishonesty, the supposed moral obligation we are under to tell the truth, I started thinking in a general way about morals.

First, that it is wrong to lie.

I was brought up to believe this. That to be caught in a lie was one of the most shameful things possible. That it is incumbent upon oneself to admit error when caught saying something not true, that can be proven to be so, and that, as guiding principle, persisting in a lie or trying to lie one’s way out of a jam, not only will result in one’s being embarrassed, but will make for a worse outcome in the long run.

Then, I thought about the broader topic of morals, of codes of conduct. I myself am sometimes guilty of thinking that they are for puritanical types with no real understanding of human behavior, and that perhaps they do more harm than good.

But, think about it — or, to put it another way, come to think about it — moral codes do work to make society “work,” so to speak — the way rules in an athletic contest do — to ensure a certain degree of “fair play,” “decency,” and harmony in human interactions and social life. (You may be asking yourself, why is this would be philosopher spouting truisms?)

 

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Then, I thought, we all know that codes of conduct and behavior — morality in general — are more honored in the breach than the observance. Hardly anyone is strictly faithful to them, and most people break them in big or little ways all the time.

But, when I have engaged in dishonesty, I feel guilt and shame inwardly. My parents’ moral percepts are still there within me.

The difference between Trump and most politicians is that there is no frame of “moral reference.” He lies continuously and shamelessly and has no compunction about doing so. I think this shocks most informed people and the journalists who cover him. It is hard to believe that this is really occurring. In this case, with respect to government and public life. The presidency. Presidents have been caught in lies before. But …

 

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So, then, I thought to myself — and said to my friend — it makes me see that having a moral frame of reference, those values we were brought up with, is not to be taken lightly. They mean something, even if we ourselves are far from perfect.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

 

 

 

 

empathy III

 

 

 

I narrowly missed a bus going home.

It was raining.

The bus had just pulled away from the curb.

It wasn’t moving; there was a long red light at a major intersection.

I stood on the curbside next to the bus’s front door, waved at the driver, and got her attention.

She wouldn’t open the door.

 

 

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A Hispanic guy whom I at first didn’t notice arrived at the curb a moment later; he had seen what had happened.

He seemed dismayed on my behalf.

What was it to him? New Yorkers are supposed to not have time for others. (Actually, the opposite is usually the case.)

I don’t recall his exact words. He said something like, what’s wrong with these bus drivers? She couldn’t let you on? And so forth.

 

 

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That could have been the end of the conversation. But, noticing his Spanish accent, I asked, “Habla español?”

We talked for a minute or two about English versus Spanish: learning to speak. He said (so true) in essence that if you know how to spell a Spanish word you always know how to pronounce it. It’s the opposite in English, he said. He gave the example of diner being pronounced differently than dinner.

I told him that he definitely had an accent but his speech seemed to indicate command of English grammar and usage.

 

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We had a five or ten minute conversation which covered a lot of ground. NYC, mainly. How long he has lived here. What he thinks of it. How he likes it, but it’s way too expensive. New York has become a city only for rich people, he said.

Boston, where I come from. He wanted to know what the climate was like there. A bit colder and more snow, I told him.

He remarked on the fact that you get to experience the change of seasons here.

I asked where he came from.

Honduras.

Mostly through my asking him, he told me the name of the capital and second largest city in Honduras, how long it takes to fly there (five hours), the climate (warm year round), and that it’s surrounded by water and beautiful beaches. He named the five countries that make up Central America. (Chitchat can be very educational.)

He had recently been to Seattle. Liked it. But expensive, he said. Almost more so than New York. He mentioned a fragrant smell of pine cones. Always cool, he said.

He has relatives in Canada. Mostly in Quebec. We briefly discussed French Canada. He said they spoke a different type of French there than in Europe (as he put it). Also, Winnipeg (he has relatives there). We discussed where it was. Neither of us knew for certain.

 
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Another bus arrived. As I was about to get on, he said, “God bless you.”

The words came to me. I replied, “Que Dios lo bendizca.” I got it slightly wrong (it should have been Que Dios lo bendiga), but at least I knew to use the subjunctive.

He seemed pleased.

 

 

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When he first spoke to me, that was empathy by definition. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. No matter who, how close you may or may not be, and how big or small the other’s situation or misfortune appears to be.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 3, 2020

 

Some people aren’t interested in people.

 

 

On Sunday, February 23, I attended a matinee concert at Carnegie Hall. Beethoven’s Pastorale and seventh symphonies.

I was in something like the fourth row center in the balcony.

I got there about a half an hour early.

Two middle aged guys sitting next to me were having an animated discussion. In Russian, as I realized after a minute or two.

Hearing Russian spoken always excites me. I can make out words and phrases but can’t follow the conversation.

I couldn’t resist. I leaned over and said to the guy to the left of me, “Excuse me, are you from Russia? I have studied Russian. I can’t speak it well. …”

Not much by way of response and no apparent interest, but he did tell me, in answer to questions of mine, that they were from Russia and were visiting. The guy next to me said he was a professor of mathematics. of which he seemed proud.

For how long? “Two months,” the guy next to me said. He seemed to be fluent in English.

“Where in Russia are you from?” I asked.

“Siberia,” he replied

“Siberia!” I said
.
The conversation seemed to be on life support. But curiosity got the best of me.

“What city?” I asked.

”Novosibirsk.”

“The largest city in Siberia?” I asked.

“Yes. 1.6 million people.”

I told him that I have befriended two Russian scholars through the internet — one from Arkhangelsk and the other from Petersburg — and that we collaborate on research and scholarship.

Absolutely no interest.

“I love Russian composers. Shostakovich. Also Tchaikovsky.”

No interest or response. As if the names Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky meant nothing to him and/or he had no opinion.

“The conductor conducting tonight, John Eliot Gardiner, is great for Beethoven,” I said. “English. Believes in fidelity to the original score and orchestration.”

At this point, he wasn’t even pretending to listen.

 

 

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Contrast all this with my mother, Elinor Handy Smith.

She loved to engage people and draw them out in conversation. (I learned this from her.)

Some stories illustrate this.

In the 1930’s, my mother’s kid brother Roger was riding in the back seat of an open convertible. My mother was at the wheel. My mother, a notoriously bad driver, was involved in a collision in which my uncle was ejected from the back seat and ended up on the roadway.

My mother, unfailingly polite, got out of the car and was exchanging information with, as well as offering apologies to, the other party.

My uncle told me years later — it amused him greatly — that my mother almost forgot and drove off without him. She found the persons in the other car extremely interesting and had gotten into a deep conversation with them about some topic entirely unrelated to the present situation and the accident. To my uncle, this was characteristic of my mother; and it illustrated things like a certain up in the clouds quality (in the good sense). I think it was this that amused him most, but in the sense that, which my uncle realized, some things mattered to my mother more than others. People, for example (not thumbtacks).

Then there was Mr. Dustin, the farmer from Concord, Mass. who would deliver fresh farm produce to our house in Cambridge once a week in the 1950’s. My mother loved his visits. He loved them. He would sit and talk with my mother for I don’t know how long. She looked forward to his deliveries because she enjoyed talking with him so much.

There were many others, many other instances, such as the interim Unitarian minister, whose name I forget, at our church (this was in my high school days) who loved to be invited to our house on Sunday afternoons because he enjoyed my mother’s Sunday dinners and loved their dinner table talk; he didn’t want to leave. There were many other visitors – all were welcome. They came from all walks of life and a notable diversity of backgrounds and countries. They would depart saying to my mother. we enjoyed so much talking with you.

 

 

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I attended a 50th class reunion at my high school a couple of years ago. In attendance was my former classmate Jack Horigan.

Looking at his nametag, I said. “Nice to see you, John.”

“Everyone calls me Jack,” he said

“Oh, my. Jack Horigan!” I replied. “I didn’t recognize you.”

How I had failed to I don’t know.

“I remember you well,” Jack said. “Because of your mother. I had an egg delivery job every morning before school then. My favorite customer was your mother. I loved it because of the talks we had.”

A high school boy. Jack was not a close friend of mine; I never spoke of him to my mother. My mother was interested in EVERYONE.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 25, 2020

Everyone wants to amount to something.

 

 

I didn’t think I would be engaging in psychobabble so soon again, but I got to thinking about something today while I was out and about. A time when the mind wanders. (The thoughts are often not wasted.)

I got to thinking about things my wife and I were talking about last night and comments she made that I found insightful and worth considering.

But first, something else I recalled this morning — not necessarily related — but I thought I saw a connection.

 

 

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I have a male friend almost the same age as me whom I sort of inherited from another acquaintance of mine. We usually get together for lunch or dinner. We have a prolonged conversation when we meet. Sometimes he seems in need of companionship and will tend to talk a lot without being a great listener, and sometimes his conversation can be tedious and filled with the minutiae of his daily life: things that would not likely be of interest to someone else.

I have told my wife many times about what I perceive to be [     ]’s being “challenged” when it comes to [     ]’s lack of communication/social skills. But I usually qualify this by saying “[     ] is really a good guy. He means well.”

He’s never mean-spirited.

[     ] seems to be one of those people who are highly intelligent and could run circles around you or me in many school subjects but who do not have a high emotional IQ.

The incident I recalled this morning was when I met [    ] last year for lunch at a diner where we often rendezvous. I was five or ten minutes late. We had agreed to meet there, not outside. I entered the diner. [     ] was already seated in a booth. I walked past it and was looking for him. When I finally found him, he erupted, so to speak, with comments such as: “How could you miss me? I was right there?”

He kept at it. I got annoyed and said: “What’s the big deal, [    ]? Who cares? I’m here, aren’t I? You said to meet you here, didn’t you? You have a problem with that?”

I was actually annoyed.

I told this story a day or two later to a friend, who made a perceptive observation. I was too dim to have seen it. “That’s his way of relating,” he said — in other words, that [     ]’s browbeating me was a kind of (awkward) conversational gambit.

 

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Recalling this this morning, I thought about the conversation with my wife last night.

We were talking about people we have known who often seemed to be exaggerating their achievements or accomplishments.

The parent whose son or daughter wrote an article for the school paper who it is quite possible will become the next George Will or Maureen Dowd.

The person in a firm or organization whom you know through acquaintance with the firm or them personally who is supposedly a mover and shaker or very important, and it turns out that they are not as important or successful as they claim to be.

When I find out about such “deceptions” — you hear from someone’s spouse that their partner has started his or her own business and is knocking ‘em dead, only to find out later that they have an office and business cards, but very few clients — I tend to joke about such stories repeatedly with my wife.

Don’t be so quick to, she said.

As we followed this train of thought a little further, I realized that she was right. What she said was that everyone wants to amount to something; I realize that this applies to ME. Whatever accomplishments I have — this includes very small and/or not notable ones — I want to be recognized and perhaps acknowledged for them; and, what’s more, for this to lead people to credit me with being admirable in some respect or another. And when it comes to conversational gambits like my friend’s, I myself am constantly trying to engage people I meet or associate with with self-styled clever, witty remarks which may or may not interest, amuse, or engage them

 

 

— Roger W Smith

   February 12, 2020

vaporized; or, when is a person not a person?

 

 

My wife and I got to talking this morning about people who make demands on one’s time or attention, something that we experience with acquaintances from time to time.

We were sharing stories from the past. She told me one about a fellow member of an organization she belonged to who knew another member who was looking for a math tutor for her son, and how the fellow member thought my wife would be perfect to recruit to do it, pro bono; that my wife would be eager to do it for another member of the organization, assuming (the fellow member, that is) that my wife had the time and motivation, which she didn’t. My wife said the fellow member was miffed when she told her that she wasn’t interested.

I thought of times when I have shared my writings with other writers or scholars, thinking they might be interested. Usually, they are not responsive. I said to my wife that this was not “wrong.” Most writers are too busy doing their own work to want to pay attention to that of others (especially writers who a priori would have no claim on their interest or attention). (Ditto for other fields of endeavor.)

Which brings to mind a story I shared with my wife.

 

 

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I think that the following anecdote illustrates something about people and interpersonal interactions. Something that has nothing to do with importuning someone.

In 1987, I took a journalism course at New York University. I was enrolled in the graduate journalism program. The course was city reporting. It was taught by New York Times political reporter Maurice Carroll, known to everyone as Mickey.

The course was very hands on. Carroll had us actively doing reporting assignments with New York politicians. He was well connected and arranged for group interviews with Mayor Dinkins and City Council member Ruth Messinger; and we attended a City Council meeting (open to the public), which we were required to report on.

(An aside: I recall that the Council members at the meeting were constantly talking about “budget mods.” And that Queens Borough President Claire Shulman called Rikers Island “the world’s largest penal colony.”)

We journalism students were sitting in the first row of the spectator section, which was right behind the committee room, I believe separated by a wooden railing. During a break in the hearing, one of the prominent Council Members, Sheldon Leffler from Queens (who served in the Council for over two decades), leaned over, and to my surprise, addressed me. “Are you from the New Yorker?” he asked in a seemingly friendly manner.

“No,” I began to answer. “I‘m a journalism school student at NYU and –.”

In mid-sentence, he turned away as if I didn’t exist.

 

 

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I continually run past events over and over in my mind, trying to conceptualize and make sense of — extract meaning from — them.

Something occurred to me the other day that I shared with my wife.

The incident was inconsequential, though I momentarily felt the effects of a putdown or rebuff (equivalent, perhaps, to a mosquito bite). But, even then, it did not make me think well of Leffler. All he had to say, should have said, if he were not rude, was something like, “Good luck in your studies.” (After all, he had addressed me.)

But it occurred to me the other day (I hadn’t thought about the incident for a long time) that such behavior illustrates something. Some people evaluate other people they meet solely on their “resume,” on externals such as occupation, importance, etc. (and perhaps — in fact probably — on whether the person has enough standing to somehow be of value or use to them). They care nothing about people as people. They are not interested in people as persons. I think this is true of many politicians and probably of many successful people in the private sector, such as executives and entrepreneurs who have made it big.

When Leffler realized that he was not speaking to a New Yorker reporter, I was “vaporized” from his consciousness. I became a nonperson.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  January 29, 2020

“Go find your wife!”

 

 

To put this post in context I should begin by saying that I have had a bad day. All sorts of things big and small have been going wrong.

I have been highly stressed and then when I was about to go out, my wife and I had a pointless argument over something trivial that spoiled my afternoon.

 

 

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My wife does most of her grocery shopping at Costco. Costco is a huge store selling grocery and other products at reduced prices; it operates on a membership-only basis.

My wife and I went shopping together in the early evening, beginning with Costco. The store is usually crowded, especially on days before holidays.

I decided to wait outside while my wife was shopping. Big Costco-like stores tire me.

After a half an hour or so, I got bored and restless. I’ll go inside and see if I can find my wife, I thought. Better wandering the aisles and gawking at shoppers than sitting still.

There was a burly guy at the entrance. He was talking with a coworker and didn’t seem to notice me. But then he said something indistinct indicating that he was inquiring whether I was a Costco member. I knew it was a members-only store, and on the rare occasions when I am there with my wife she shows her card at the door.

I might have just kept going (pretending I hadn’t heard). Sometimes that works. But I thought to myself, honesty is probably the best policy. It usually is.

“I’m looking for my wife. She’s shopping,” I said. Then I added, “I don’t have a Costco card.”

“You’re looking for your wife?” he replied with a big smile. He seemed amused, acted as if that tickled him.

“Welcome, brother!” he said. “Go find your wife!”

This little incident and interaction made my day and magically helped offset or reduce the tension I had been feeling. The Costco “gatekeeper” displayed humanity and a lack of officiousness.

The moral of the story. The smallest acts of human empathy and kindness can do more good than one would think and can have an incremental effect in terms of their larger benefits.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 23, 2019

“Winterreise” on a December afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall this afternoon of Schubert’s Winterreise (D. 911) performed by Joyce Didonato (mezzo soprano) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano).

 

Nézet-Séguin, who is Canadian, is not only a pianist. He is the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.

Regarding Ms. Didonato’s performance, which was outstanding, The New York Times noted in an article published last week that Winterreise is ” a work not usually sung by a female voice, but one that profits from it.”

 

 

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The song cycle was, as I have already noted, performed brilliantly. It goes without saying that the piano is equal to the voice in this musical setting. Winterreise (Winter’s Journey, 1828) is a setting by Schubert of 24 poems by the poet Wilhelm Müller.

 

“A power duo of Joyce DiDonato (one the world’s greatest singers) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (a thrilling conductor-pianist) perform one of music’s greatest song cycles: Schubert’s harrowing and compellingly tragic Winterreise. The two dozen songs in this cycle chart a journey through an icy winter landscape, telling tales of alienation and loneliness. Schubert’s gift for what Liszt described as ‘dramatizing lyrical inspirations to the highest degree’ comes to life in this riveting performance.” (Carnegie Hall website)

 

Indeed, emotion — particularized human emotion — comes through so strongly in Schubert’s lieder. It is the music of a composer and also a poet in his medium (music).

Schubert, I realized and felt, knew and understood humanity. Human longings and sorrows.

 

 

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Music energizes and jostles the mind.

 

About two thirds into the concert, something in the music or lyrics of Winterreise took me elsewhere in time. Perhaps it was the thoughts in the lyrics of the inevitability of death:

 

Weiser stehen auf den Strassen,

weisen auf die Städte zu,

und ich wand’re sonder Maßen

ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh’.

Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen

unverrückt vor meinem Blick;

eine Straße muß ich gehen,

die noch keiner ging zurück.

 

Signposts stand on the roads,

point towards towns.

Yet I wander on and on,

unresting, in search of rest.

One signpost I see stand there,

steadfast before my gaze.

One road I must travel

by which no-one ever came back.

 

— “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost)

 

 

I was transported in my mind (my thoughts wandering) back to my home and family sixty-five years ago. My father and mother. My siblings. A bittersweet sadness came over me. Comprised of happy, glad memories. The joy my parents took in their children. The appreciation they had and showed for them. Realizing that my parents are no longer living, were deceased long ago.  I remember them so keenly. They were so alive then and aren’t now. Realizing that I will cease to exist and become only a memory.

 

 

 

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Schubert makes the particular, the lived and keenly experienced moment, take on Blakean eternity:

 

Nun merk’ ich erst, wie müd’ ich bin,

da ich zur Ruh’ mich lege:

das Wandern hielt mich munter hin

auf unwirtbarem Wege.

Die Füße frugen nicht nach Rast,

es war zu kalt zum Stehen;

der Rücken fühlte keine Last,

der Sturm half fort mich wehen.

In eines Köhlers engem Haus

hab’ Obdach ich gefunden;

doch meine Glieder ruh’n nicht aus:

So brennen ihre Wunden.

Auch du, mein Herz, in Kampf und Sturm

so wild und so verwegen,

fühlst in der Still’ erst deinen Wurm

mit heißem Stich sich regen!

 

I only notice now how tired I am,

as I lie down to rest.

Walking kept my spirits up

along an inhospitable road.

My feet did not ask for rest–

it was too cold to stand still;

my back felt no burden,

the storm helped to blow me along.

In a charcoal-burner’s tiny hut

I have found shelter.

But my limbs will not take their ease,

their wounds are burning so.

You too, my heart, in struggle and storm

so wild and so untamed,

now in the stillness feel the serpent within

rear up with its searing sting.

 

— “Rast” (Rest)

 

 

To “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” (William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”).

 

 

— Roger W. Smith
 
   December 15, 2019

gratuitous cruelty

 

 

‘after false drug test he was in solitary confinement for 120 days’

 

 

‘Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings’

 

 

El Chapo – Washington Post 2-14-2019

 

 

‘Where El Chapo Could End Up’ – NY Times 2-15-2019

 

 

 

“In a memorandum on April 16, 2003, [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld approved 24 of the recommended [interrogation] techniques [for at the American-run detention site at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba]. … An action memorandum presented to [Rumsfeld] on Nov. 27, 2002, recommends that he approve a number of interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo, including one described as ‘the use of stress positions (like standing), for a maximum of four hours.’

“Mr. Rumsfeld, who labors in his Pentagon office at a stand-up desk, added this handwritten postscript: ‘I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?’ ”

— “Files Show Rumsfeld Rejected Some Efforts to Toughen Prison Rules,” by Douglas Jehl, The New York Times, June 23, 2004

 

 
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As I was walking downtown in the City on Thursday morning last week. enjoying the quiet, early morning streets — it seems that there is always something interesting or beautiful to see — I had a feeling of elation. The sun emerged from behind clouds at approximately 9 a.m.

I was thinking what a wonderful thing (which I assume as a given) freedom (personal, one’s own) is. And how awful is must be to be deprived of it.

My mind was wandering. I thought of an article I had read in the Times that morning: “After False Drug Test, He Was in Solitary Confinement for 120 Days.”

One hundred twenty days, four months, in solitary confinement. For testing positive for drugs while incarcerated. (The test results proved to be wrong. The inmate was not using drugs. The drug-testing equipment used was defective and failed to produce accurate results.)

The stupidity and cruelty of how the prisoners in the article (others suffered similar injustices and pain as the result of the same flawed drug tests) were treated seemed so unjustified, and just plain that.

Then I thought of the so-called supermax (a term meaning highest security prison): the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado (also known as the ADX), where recently convicted drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera (El Chapo) is imprisoned.

 

 

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“This place [the ADX] is not designed for humanity,” Robert Hood, a former warden, told The New York Times. (“Where El Chapo Could End Up: A Prison ‘Not Designed for Humanity’ ”).

Inmates spend 23 hours a day inside cells the size of a bathroom with little human contact and only one window three feet high and four inches wide. Every part of the prison’s 500 cells is made of poured concrete. Each cell has a bed, a concrete slab covered with a thin foam mattress, and a “combo toilet, sink and drinking water unit.” Some cells have a single slit in the door that shows a sliver of the hallway.

In an essay published on the internet, an inmate at the ADX wrote that even when prisoners are let outside their cells, the surroundings are severe. “No mountain, bush, tree or blade of grass is visible from the yard, just the sky,” he wrote. “The cages have just enough room to do aerobic exercises. Other than the opportunity to breathe fresh air and feel the sunshine on your skin, the outside cages are just cells that are open to the sky.”

Meals, mail and medicine are all delivered. “Everything the inmate needs comes and goes through the door slot,” the inmate wrote, adding that “the basic setup is for long-term solitary confinement.”

“The purpose,” the intimate wrote, “is to gradually tear a person down mentally and physically, through environmental and physical deprivation.”

“The segregation is intense; it’s a punitive environment as harsh as any place on Earth,” Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post (“El Chapo escaped two prisons in Mexico — but no one’s ever busted out of the American ‘ADX’ ,” February 14, 2019).

 

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I was also thinking about Albert Schweitzer.

In my adolescence, I read Albert Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography (originally published as Aus Meinem Leben und Denken). The book made a profound impression on me. I was greatly impressed by the principle of Reverence for Life adumbrated by Schweitzer:

“[T]he man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own. He accepts as good preserving life, promoting life, developing all life that is capable of development to its highest possible value. He considers as evil destroying life, injuring life, repressing life that is capable of development. [italics added] This is the absolute, fundamental principle of ethics, and it is a fundamental postulate of thought. …

The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as a logical consequence of thought.

 

 

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Applying this to the case of notorious criminals such as El Chapo,* it seems to me true in principle that:

El Chapo must be locked up. He was the violent and feared leader of a criminal enterprise who had escaped from prison in the past and who would seem to be beyond redemption, should that be a matter of consideration. Along with accomplices, he habitually carried out murders, often brutal, of rivals, witnesses, and underlings who ran afoul of him.

But he should be allowed to see and embrace his wife and daughters as visitors. To be confined in something less than a virtual torture chamber. Because all prisoners are persons: human beings.

I feel that the operating principle should be: Do the minimum human harm possible. Regardless of how evil an individual is considered to be.

Gratuitous cruelty gives pleasure to those who inflict it.

I like to think (it is consistent with Jesus’s teachings) that somewhere in the afterlife there will be an accounting, a reckoning, for each individual, of one’s benevolent actions and one’s evil actions with respect to harm done to others in whatever capacity, whether it was a crime or actions supposedly not evil, but nonetheless equally so, done in an official capacity. Human suffering should be minimized.

Donald Rumsfeld’s comments encapsulate all of this. All of the above reflections of mine.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

As I observed in a previous post

 

is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/01/25/is-it-possible-or-desirable-to-hold-two-divergent-opinions-at-the-same-time-2/

 

sometimes, if not often, one can assert, or stake out, a position only to find oneself thinking otherwise almost, as it were, in the same moment.

I also read an article in last week’s New York Times about a young man convicted of murder in Pennsylvania:

The bodies of four victims were found on the farm [in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania] after an extensive search. They had been partially burned in a roaster made out of an oil drum, and had been buried in a 12-foot-deep hole. (“Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings,” The New York Times)

The man was convicted of first degree murder for the killings this week. He seems not to have shown remorse. His cousin pleaded guilty to the murders last year. “Your Honor, I want the four families to know I am so sorry,” the cousin said at his sentencing. “I hope that they find some peace in knowing that I’m just genuinely — I can’t even come to terms with what occurred. I’m sorry.”

As Leo Tolstoy observed, one’s horror at the depravity of heinous crimes seems to vary inversely with the length of time passed since the crime was committed:

A sinking man who clutches at another and drowns him; or a hungry mother exhausted by feeding her baby, who steals some food; or a man trained to discipline who on duty at the word of command kills a defenseless man–seem less guilty, that is, less free and more subject to the law of necessity, to one who knows the circumstances in which these people were placed, and more free to one who does not know that the man was himself drowning, that the mother was hungry, that the soldier was in the ranks, and so on. Similarly a man who committed a murder twenty years ago and has since lived peaceably and harmlessly in society seems less guilty and his action more due to the law of inevitability, to someone who considers his action after twenty years have elapsed than to one who examined it the day after it was committed. [italics added]

— Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace; First Epilogue

Well, in this case, the brutality of the murder and depravity of the killer seemed such to me that no punishment seemed too harsh. Prosecutors initially had sought the death penalty, but the district attorney changed his mind after meeting with the families of the victims.

Philosophers have been trying to come to terms with questions pertaining to what is just since Plato. The following is a passage from a book I am currently reading:

The natural law denotes the eternal and archetypal rule of right action flowing from the will and wisdom of God and guiding men possessed with free will through their ability to reason. Whereas revelation represents a direct communication of divine decrees to a privileged portion of the human race, the natural law proclaims itself with varying degrees of clarity to all rational beings, even to those deprived of biblical truths. Most of mankind came to acknowledge and obey this providential source of all earthly law and order, not through pure ratiocination, but through the historical attempt to discover empirically the conditions of life needed for optimum happiness: “…

Throughout the series the natural law comes close to being associated with a crucial principle of human necessity behind social progress. Such a principle ultimately reflects an elemental drive within human nature for self-preservation and social interaction, both of which generate mankind’s historical pursuit of happiness and preference for a civilized habitat to satisfy that drive. This principle of human necessity provides a norm for measuring the value of actions according to their strict “utility” in fulfilling the contradictory selfish and social impulses of humanity for the protection and fellowship of a civilized community. … But at the heart of all civil development lies an unremitting trial-and-error effort to meet man’s basic physical and psychological needs within the limitations of his earthly environment. If human nature craves social fellowship and protection, it also requires the restraints of a strong sovereign power to curb its egotistical appetites and enforce order and cooperation in a world left inherently unstable by original sin. …

 

— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 40-41 (summarizing the contents of Chambers ‘s lectures at Oxford. which were influenced by,  and influenced, the views of Samuel Johnson)

 

The book has been worth reading for reasons other than those that primarily drew me to it, and I see that while I find the law disagreeable and punishments often cruel and odious, the former is necessary.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 26, 2019

 

 

* Did Schweitzer intend for his thoughts to be applied to criminals and depraved human beings? I am sure that was not what he was thinking of. After all, serial killers don’t have “reverence for life.” Nevertheless, what I feel is that if one (in Schweitzer’s words) gives “to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own,” one by implication — or extension of Schweitzer’s principle — must not deny the humanity of others, without exception.

 

 

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SOURCES:

 

 

“El Chapo escaped two prisons in Mexico — but no one’s ever busted out of the American ‘ADX’ ,” by Deanna Paul, The Washington Post, February 14, 2019

 

“Where El Chapo Could End Up: A Prison ‘Not Designed for Humanity’,” by Alan Feuer and Alan Blinder, The New York Times, February 15, 2019

 

“Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings.” By Sandra E. Garcia, The New York Times, November 18, 2019

 

“After False Drug Test, He Was in Solitary Confinement for 120 Days: Hundreds of New York State prisoners were locked in cells, denied release or removed from programs when tests erroneously showed they had used narcotics, according to a lawsuit.” by Jan Ransom, The New York Times, November 20, 2019

“What have you done for others?”

 

 

“You probably know that I am [doing volunteer work]. _______ has done numerous, exceedingly generous activities to help the disadvantaged. Can you name one thing you have ACTIVELY done to help the needy? …What have your contributions to society been? … What have YOU done for others?”

 

 

— email to me from a relative, July 2018

 

 
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And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. ….

 

— Matthew 5-6 (The Sermon on the Mount)

 

 

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He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.

— William Blake, Jerusalem

 

 

 

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The full Blake passage reads:

 

Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones;
And those who are in misery cannot remain so long,
If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.…
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars,
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power:
The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.

 

T. S. Eliot (who, unaccountably, found fault with this passage) wrote that “Blake was endowed with a capacity for considerable understanding of human nature.” (T. S. Eliot, “Blake”; in The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry And Criticism). So true. And, in my opinion, Blake never said anything more true than He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. These words are seared into my consciousness, and they greatly influenced my thinking.

 

 

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I do not have a preference for organized charities (or charity). Though I do not, and one should not, find fault with them a priori, or with those who volunteer or donate. They may be supported for reasons, partly, of self-interest, or to make someone look good, say, in their public profile or on a resume or college application. Note that I said they “may be.”

I prefer to do good in minute particulars. In little ways. I am always trying to. In my immediate environment. Where I live. Among friends and friends of friends or relatives. And, mostly, for people whom I encounter anonymously in the City.

There is no point in my giving particulars — it would not be true to the spirit of what is said above.

And, by the way, I fully agree with what Blake wrote – the thrust of the entire passage quoted above — developing his idea of particular versus general good more fully: “General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; … / And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power: / The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.”

Much of what is done by social engineers and reformers – supposedly for amelioration of conditions of the oppressed – actually is done with the most mean spirited intentions one can conceive of, and actually does harm to individuals, as I have shown in many of my posts.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2019

thoughts about the ocean

 

 

When asked what she would miss about the voyage, Greta [Thunberg] said–much as some harried adults feel about a long trip–the best part was “to just sit, literally sit, staring at the ocean for hours not doing anything.”

“To be in this wilderness, the ocean, and to see the beauty of it,” she added. “That I’m going to miss. Peace and quiet.” She paused for a moment.

 

— “Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist, Arrives in N.Y. With a Message for Trump; The Swedish 16-year-old sailed across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit next month,” by Anne Barnard, The New York Times, August 28, 2019

 

 

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It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea. …

Aloft, like a royal czar and king, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom. And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion–most seen here at the equator–denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

… Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. …

 

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 132. “The Symphony”

 

 

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Brad,

 

BEATS AIR TRAVEL

I love her words and thoughts about the sea.

Her yacht docked in Manhattan right below Wall Street. I go there often to walk and enjoy the proximity to the water.

 

Roger
— email to my friend Brad Coady, August 28, 2019

 

 

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— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2019