Very Bad Judgement

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On June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It’s tempting to speculate about the motives of the justices who pushed that ruling through. But I focus here upon what I believe to be a glaring flaw in their logic.

As reported by NPR:

Writing for the court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that the 1973 Roe ruling and repeated subsequent high court decisions reaffirming Roe “must be overruled” because they were “egregiously wrong,” the arguments “exceptionally weak” and so “damaging” that they amounted to “an abuse of judicial authority.”

I think Justice Alito’s explanation is fundamentally flawed because it ignores the core function of the Constitution, which is to guard against tyranny.

I think the American Revolution was a necessary response to the tyranny of one group over another. And the Constitution is a remarkably lucid attempt to establish a foundation upon which a society can evolve that’s primary virtue is that it guards against one group tyrannizing another.

Apart from all other considerations, I think the litmus test for whether something is constitutional is whether it opens the door for one group to impose their will upon another, which overturning Roe v. Wade absolutely does. To my way of thinking, overturning Roe v. Wade was an unconstitutional act that makes it possible for self-indulgent sadists to visit unbridle aggression upon women.

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Self-Indulgence and Sadism

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In the last chapter of his marvelous and frightening book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy”, Tom Nichols observes:

But if we have learned anything in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, it is that people will think hard – or they will convince themselves that they have tried to do so – and still come up with incomprehensible and reckless anti-democratic conclusions … if the citizens of modern democracies were the kind of people willing to engage in the kind of honest reflection that leads to a commitment to political maturity, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.

My reading of Professor Nichols’s book suggests to me that he holds out hope that Americans and citizens in other democracies can still decide not to destroy themselves…that we can think their way off the road to ruin.  I’m less optimistic.

The primary reason for my pessimism is that I think human consciousness, like the biological machine that carries it, continues to evolve.  And that an ever-increasing number of human beings are now possessed of a form of consciousness that manifests itself in selfish and fundamentally sadistic behavior.  In what follows I’ll refer to such folks as “always frustrated people” (AFPs for short). 

I hypothesize that way back in time the fundamental human experience of itself was as a group, but since long before recorded history the trend in the evolution of human consciousness has been toward increased self-awareness, with the result that now LOTS of human beings experience themselves as entirely individual.  These are the folks I think of as AFPs because it is inevitable that someone who experiences everything only through the lens of their own feelings and ideas must live in a state of constant frustration.  They can’t have everything they want.  They are constantly confronted with ideas they don’t agree with.  And I’m guessing a great many of their own ideas form around the day in, day out frustration of their desires.

People who are constantly frustrated, and AFPs almost always are, seem to live in a state of perpetual anger.   Since their exclusively individual experience is the only experience they know, they are unable to imagine that others’ self-experience is different.  Consequently, they are certain that whether others admit it or not, everyone else is also deeply, perpetually frustrated and consumed with resentment.  This assumption…this projection on others that they are all also perpetually frustrated and consumed with resentment…makes anyone who challenges them in any way “a lying, weaselly jerk who thinks he’s smarter than me, conspiring with other lying, weaselly jerks who think they are smarter than me, to try to keep me from having what I want.” 

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Dickens and Talos

The Shape of Water

When I was a child I couldn’t read. When I tried my eyes resisted. They wouldn’t focus upon the next word in a sentence without extraordinary effort. Being called upon to read aloud in class was a recurring humiliation. Knowing my turn was coming, I would try to guess where the teacher would have the person in front of me stop reading, and before it was my turn I would try to work through the words I would have to read. Even when I guessed right about which sentence I would have to attempt I was always so anxious that I could not remember the two or three words I had figured out.

I would stand, book in hand, staring at the page, trying to get my eyes to stay on the first word of the sentence long enough for me to recognize it, at the same time filled with distress about the lengthening silence I was authoring. Finally, I would see the word and offer a tentatively suggestion. “The.” Then the struggle shifted to the second word in the sentence.

Lots of anxious ideas swirled in my head while I tried to get my eyes to hold still. Maybe the first word was a hint to the second. Everyone else can do this! There must be some trick that I just haven’t figured out. But what was that first word again? “The.” No help there. Could the second word be “cat.” Usually, about this time, the teacher would call upon the next student and I’d sit down, exhausted, wanting nothing so much as to curl up in a corner and sleep.

This went on until sixth grade (1962) at which point my parents and the administration of the Catholic school I attended agreed that I could not be given another pass. At a parent-teacher conference that took place at the front of an otherwise empty classroom while I sat within earshot at the back, it was decided that my willful refusal to study could not be tolerated further. It was time for me to flunk. I would have to take sixth grade again.

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Antimony

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Before social media, isolation was the heavy tax levied on the luxury of minority views. The daring might attempt to reach out to others of like mind, but it was often risky and the cost was sometimes dear.

Nonetheless, as now, advances in information technology offered options. Starting about 560 years ago enterprising and determined Europeans employed movable type and published under assumed names to hide in plain sight, where only those looking for their own reflection might find each other.

In 1685 a book called Currus Triumphalis Antimonii (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony), ostensibly the work of a 15th-century Benedictine monk, was published in Amsterdam. A colorful excerpt from the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle” follows here.

Illuminated M


ercury appeared to me in a dream, and brought me back from my devious courses to the one way. “Behold me clad not in the garb of the vulgar, but in the philosopher’s mantle!” so he said, and straightway began to leap along the road in headlong bounds. Then, when he was tired, he sat down, and, turning to me, who had followed him in the spirit, bade me mark that he no longer possessed that youthful vigour with which he would at the first have overcome every obstacle, if he had not been allowed a free course.

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But there’s one thing…

Just One Thing

…perhaps a memory, something seen or heard that all thought inevitably circles back to.

Sanctuary

In 1969, my last year in high school, I worked on the school newspaper. I had heard that the previous year’s class president – his name was Curtis as I recall – had sought sanctuary from the draft in a local Unitarian Church. I visited him and we talked for a while, then I wrote about him and the ideas he had shared with me in the following week’s edition of the paper. About a week later I heard that soldiers in uniform had gone into the church one night, beaten Curtis, and dragged him out onto the lawn where police were waiting and took him into custody. That was in Whittier, California. A sleepy college town where Nixon had spent much of his youth.

Late one Sunday night shortly after Curtis’s arrest I was working alone at school cranking out the Monday edition of the newspaper on the mimeograph machine. The paper’s staff moderator had given me keys so I could come and go at odd hours, and it was after 10. I was not expecting to bump into anyone, so I was startled to discover a guy named Don who I had known since first grade standing in the doorway in army dress uniform. Continue reading

Salvage by Moonlight

Salvage by Moonlight

There is a 2,000-year-old wonder called the “Antikythera mechanism.” I plan to talk about it, but I’ll start in 1993 when I got some nifty drawing software and took it into my head to try to compose an image resembling a coin with a two-faced Janus head on one side. Since the program allowed me to position visual elements precisely I decided to put small circles like a string of beads around the edge of the coin. This proved surprisingly challenging. The diameter of the coin was 7 inches, so its circumference was roughly 22 inches (2 x pi x (7/2)), but the string of circles needed to be just slightly inside the circumference of the circle. And the circumference of each little circle was a line that had thickness, and I wanted those little circles to overlap at their points of contact.

Something I realized pretty quickly was that I would make myself crazy if I tried to draw every single little circle and hope that they would all meet up nicely when the two ends came together over a 22 inch circular span. So instead I divided the 7 inch circle into eight 45-degree slices, fitted the small circles along the curved edge of one of the slices, then made seven copies and arranged them around the circumference of the coin. The result was not perfect uniformity, but it did not offend the eye. And since I was only drawing, and not trying to manipulate solids, or needing to have my work mesh with something else, what I came up with was sufficient.

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With Care

With Care

When I was a child the family next door had several daughters about half my age. The youngest was named Tutu. She was a sweet and very shy little three-year-old at the time of the event I’m about to describe. Our neighborhood was post-World-War-II VA bargain suburbia. Small, modest one-story homes set very close together on very small rectangles of property, with diminutive front and backyards. It was a proverbial tract of houses, expressed in five architectural plans. Tutu’s family lived in one that featured a garage in front of the house with the door perpendicular to the street and accessed via a short, squat quarter-circle driveway. Consequently, most of the area in front of the house was smooth concrete. An ideal place for Tutu’s family and mine to ignite our combined purchase of Red Devil fireworks.

On the particular 4th of July that I am recalling, it occurred to Tutu’s father that she might begin to overcome her fear of fireworks if he helped her light Piccolo Pete – a fountain-style pyrotechnic device that sent a funnel of colorful sparks several feet into the air while emitting a shrill whistle. It consisted of a flat, square wooden base of about an inch and a half on each side and about an eighth of an inch thick, upon which a cardboard tube stood that was, as I recall, about five inches tall and half an inch in diameter. A short, thick fuse projected from the top of the tube. Tutu’s father gave his daughter a sparkler, which he lit. That was excitement enough for her and she would have let it fall from her hand if her father had not placed his hand around hers and guided the shimmering end of the sparkler toward Pete’s fuse…all the while assuring Tutu that all would be well.

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Palmyra

Palmyra

The Arch of Palmyra was built approximately 1,800 years ago at an elevation of 1,250 feet above our current sea level in what is now Syria. Until the remains of the structure were dynamited by ISIL in October 2015 the monumental ruins included one large arch flanked on both sides by two smaller arches. The stonework in the image above is abstracted from one of the smaller arches.

34°32’59.9″N 38°16’15.6″E

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To Anthropomorphize Is Human

Anthropomorphize

Why is it so hard to do the right thing?  You are probably not surprised to learn that I have a theory.

Dr. Google says that in psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious.   An embellishment I’d like to add is that I think of  the psyche as composed of everything that we are aware of, plus everything we are not aware of.

What I’m saying is that it seems to me each of us is conscious of a relatively few things, but what we are unconscious of could be described as pretty much infinitely vast.  I think what we don’t know is a LOT more than what we do know.  And what we do know we probably do not know fully.  Rather I think we capture as best we can mental images of what we are becoming aware of, and I propose that the way our minds organize those images has a lot to do with why it is hard to do the right thing.

As I understand it, images in our minds that are similar naturally arrange themselves into clusters. And any particular cluster of images that gets very big also gets complex.  So complex, in fact, that it begins to develop a personality.

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A Creation Myth

Creation Myth

At an impressionable age in a hallway in the UCLA Department of Philosophy I saw a placard that read…

“We need never doubt those things about which no one is certain.”

It’s a thought that comes to mind often these days when I reflect upon horrible deeds, justified by mean-spirited assertions based upon preposterous sacred-cow assumptions.

In light of the extraordinary uncertainty of pretty much every aspect of existence, I wonder if I might do well to willfully doubt all the explanations humans have formulated for themselves in the past, and consider instead the possibility that each of us is wholly, completely and utterly responsible for what we do.

While I’m at it I should probably also consider putting aside the idea that someone, or some institution, or some creed, has the authority to “give me permission” to do hurtful things to others. Perhaps I might even try on the idea that every cruel act I perform is one that I, and only I, choose to perform.

These thoughts incline me to contribute to the great pool of creation myths the suggestion that a long time ago…I mean, a VERY long time ago…at a distance so far from Earth that all the stars in that remote region have been dark infinitely longer than they ever sparkled…engineers experimented with a mechanism that could configure various chemicals in such a way that animate forms emerged. This mechanism was so cleverly crafted that when placed in a large body of water it could, over time, automatically reconfigure itself to achieve ever-greater variety and complexity of animation.

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