Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind by Nancy Sherman. Interesting book by an academic philosopher who taught at the Naval Academy for a time. It's about stoicism both in the sense of the actual philosophy as practiced and taught in the US military, and a stoic attitude which is linked to it. Sherman knows a lot about the philosophy and is careful to draw a distinction between the stoic philosophy and the stoic attitude.
An interesting book for several reasons. First, she has a lot of specific anecdotes of how people in the military have coped mentally with tough situations, some of them explicitly using stoic philosophy. Sherman also makes some interesting points that I hadn't seen before, such as the use of the Roman stoic concept of decorum. This is useful in a couple of ways: faking an attitude can help you achieve that attitude, and in a military situation it can help subordinates if the commander is apparently calm and and confident.
Sherman's criticisms of stoicism are a bit of a mixed bag. We have the dull but apparently obligatory hydraulic-model objection, that you need to "let out" bad emotions so as not to feel them in future. Stoicism has a reinforcement model, where indulging in an emotion is more likely to let it recur. Modern psychological evidence suggests the reinforcement model is correct.
(I think that the hydraulic-model is basically the ancient Theory of Humours going back to Hippocrates, though modern people imagine emotions as magical soul-fluids rather than yucky physical substances like blood, phlegm and yellow or black bile. It's a nice demonstration of the power of the classical world today, that people's instinctive complaint about the philosophy of Stoicism is that it conflicts with another ancient Greek idea they just assume to be true.)
She has a couple of more interesting criticisms. She thinks that the Sage, the theoretical superhumanly perfect stoic, might encourage a kind of dissociative personality who denies his emotions. I tend to think that the concept of the Sage is more confusing than helpful in the modern world. In the ancient world the Sage was a concept common to all the Hellenistic schools of philosophy. If the schools wanted to discuss marriage for instance, they might couch it in terms of "should the Sage marry?" and the Epicureans might argue one position, the Stoics another. Without the Sage being a part of common culture anymore, it's not really a helpful for debate. The issues of infinities and perfection then give rise to a mass of theoretical problems which are irrelevant in practice. So I tend to think we'd be better off using real human role models rather than the Sage.
Another not terribly convincing criticism is Sherman's idea that we should embrace our vulnerability to other people as a source of strength. Again, this isn't presented very convincingly. Stoicism already encourages us to be connected to other people through its emphasis on society and the Universal City. While as non-sages we have to accept that this entails a degree of vulnerability, it seems just plain false to claim it's actually a source of strength.
Overall though, quite a useful book if you're interested in modern stoicism: informative about its place in the military, and knowledgeable about the philosophy in general.
What I'm Reading 2
The General by Ahmed Errachidi, Gillian Slovo.
Just some context to start. One of the most important texts of modern stoicism is James Stockdale's account of how he used stoic philosophy to help him survive his years of imprisonment and torture by the Viet Cong. Now, a certain kind of person, reviewing such a book, would use it as an opportunity to condemn US militarism, implying that as part of the US military, Stockdale was in part responsible for his own captivity. While that's an interesting topic in its own right, it risks derailing attention from the general topic of how to survive a harsh imprisonment, which is also a valuable topic.
"The General" is an account of Moroccan restaurant chef Ahmed Errachidi's captivity in Guantanamo Bay. He was captured in Afghanistan with an odd story about how he came to be there, as a one-man relief operation after an abortive attempt to smuggle gold from Pakistan. He was released after supporters on the outside found payslips from the London restaurants where he worked, showing that he could not have been a terrorist at the time he was accused of it.
Some of the reviews like to start by highlighting the oddity of Errachidi's story, implying that he must have been a member of Al Qaeda, just not at the time he was actually accused of it. This seems to me a bit like trying to make Stockdale's text into a debate on the validity of the Vietnam War. Whatever his responsibility, that doesn't make torturing him in revenge acceptable, nor does it make imprisoning him without a trial acceptable, nor does it make his achievement in surviving a harsh imprisonment unworthy of attention.
Moreover, it seems to me that if you sweep through a country and round up all the foreigners without good explanations for their presence, you are by the nature of it likely to end up with some oddballs without obvious good reasons for being there. If you select for people without likely stories for their presence, you'll get people with unlikely stories.
Errachidi was imprisoned in Afghanistan, then apparently sold to the Americans, held at Bagram air base. He was then sent to Guantanamo, where as one of the few prisoners to speak English he became an unofficial spokesman for the other prisoners. This led to him being forced into a kind of leadership role, with the guards nicknaming him "the General". He was therefore singled out for exceptional punishment and kept for long periods in solitary confinement. Eventually he was released after tireless campaigners on the outside proved by finding payslips that he was in London during the period he was accused of being a terrorist.
The accounts of life in Guantanamo are about as horrific as you would expect. Beatings, sleep deprivation, humiliations like forced nudity, and long periods of solitary confinement. While not surprising, it's depressing to someone who's read Stockdale's text to see how similar the treatment of prisoners was.
What's more surprising is that the supposedly omniscient US intelligence services made allegations against Errachidi that his London payslips proved false. There were other periods of his life when they could far more plausibly have accused him of being a terrorist. It seems then that they were either so inept that they never bothered to make even a cursory investigation of his story, or just so confident of their extra-legal status that they just thought they could say anything they wanted and never be investigated.
I suspect that they're just so firmly wrapped up in a narrative where they are the heroic Good Guys battling Evil Terrorist that they're essentially detached from reality altogether.
Overall, an interesting and powerful book, well worth reading.
What I'm Reading 3
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. First in another series of urban fantasies, this one about a magician who is sent to Hell as a teenager, becomes a gladiator there, and returns to LA, Earth on a mission of revenge. Pretty good with some hardboiled noir touches. I was given a set of three books, will definitely be carrying on.
What I'm Reading 4
Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L'Amour. Memoir by the popular writer of Westerns, concentrating on his early life where he did a succession of tough manual jobs: mine caretaker, labourer, boxer, sailor; while also voraciously reading to educate himself. A keen reader and autodidact, later on in life he amassed a library of 9,000 volumes.
It's definitely good reading, packed with great anecdotes and an appealing homespun philosophy of self-education, hard work and compassion.
As an autobiography though, you get a sense of an intensely private man using his storytelling ability to conceal more than he reveals. He gives the impression here that he was an indomitable wanderer who took the decision to leave his family and go on the road in his teens. In fact, his whole family became migrant labourers in the Great Depression and he went with them. You would think that going from stable prosperity would be pretty traumatic for someone of that age, but there's no hint of any emotion. He casually mentions his wife and child but says nothing about how he met his wife, though this was much later when he was in his forties. In his books he eschews all swearing and ignores sex (a mere "leisure activity", as opposed to the serious business of the frontier). Here he reports that his first sale was to a magazine that went bust: in fact he sold it and several others to a magazine more noted for its naked ladies.
Despite the limits, a good read. One thing he's very serious about is his research: he points out that Western readers are unforgiving of inaccuracies.
What I'm Watching
Watched Waldemar Januszczak's latest art series, a three-parter called Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness He defines Rococo very broadly, including pretty much the whole 18th century: I'd never really thought of Goya as Rococo before. Pretty informative, with some art and architecture that was new to me. Some of the gimmicks get a bit tiresome though, especially the awkwardly-giggling costumed models. Worth seeing if you can overlook that.
What I'm Watching 2
Saw the controversial movie about the tracking down and capture of Osama Bin Laden Zero Dark Thirty. The protagonist is the obsessed female investigator Maya. At the start of the film she's shown first witnessing and then taking part in torture of prisoners. The middle section has her gradually tracking down leads, while narrowly escaping death first in a restaurant bombing, then when her car is shot up. After some years another investigator comes up with a piece of information that was overlooked at first, leading her to bin Laden's trusted courier. The film ends with the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.
The film has been criticized for implying that the torture led to the capture of bin Laden, which is apparently false. However, that's not actually stated: there are couple of nods in the other direction, with other officers pointing out that the recent terrorist attacks were by independents not connected with bin Laden, and that the earlier intelligence is regarded as unreliable because it was obtained under torture.
There's a saying attributed to Francois Truffaut that there can never be such a thing as an anti-war film, as any film depicting a war inevitable glamourizes it. I'm reminded of that here. Omitting the torture scenes would have been problematic in its own way, airbrushing real and important elements out of the story. But including them, and not explicitly repudiating them, inevitably suggests that they were useful.
Also there is a sense that Hollywood cliches are used to glamourize the conflict: it's hard to believe that Maya was in such danger, and there are implausible scenes of her threatening her boss in a typical maverick-cop-against-the-system setup.
On the plus side, the story is quite grippingly told; and is darker, more ambiguous and less jingoistic than it could have been. Overall, interesting if you can overlook the problems.
What I'm Watching 3
Saw Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now", made by director's wife Eleanor Coppola. It was famously an epic shoot, lasting 238 days, beset by production problems and personal difficulties. There's even an extended clip of Martin Sheen's virtually real breakdown in the hotel room, with them calling for a doctor on the soundtrack after he unexpectedly punched the mirror, cutting up his figures in real life. Definitely worth watching if you like the movie, possibly interesting even if you haven't.
What I'm Watching 4
Saw the Sophia Fiennes / Slavoj Zizek documentary The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Basically a lecture with movie clips, with the gimmick that Zizek is inserted into replicas of the sets while he explains the ideological background.
This is the sequel to a similar "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" which I haven't seen.
Zizek's view is that ideology functions rather like a sexual fetish: it's pleasurable, but functions like a fantasy in that it's an escape from reality, and that people suspend disbelief rather than believing it entirely rationally.
I liked it a lot. While lots of people like to criticize Zizek, I'm not aware of many other modern philosophers trying to do what he does, use philosophy to explain current events.
What I'm Watching 5
Saw The Admirable Crichton. 1950s comedy based on an older play. A butler believes firmly in the class system, though the lord he works for thinks people should be more equal. When the family are marooned on a desert island, the butler takes charge. Pretty good, still amusing.
Socioeconomics. Labour Markets: A Theory of Troubles. Marx's Vision of Communism. Generations make little difference in the workplace. Finance sector rent-seekers. US middle class turning proletarian. Why has neoliberalism persisted despite failure?
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