Tag Archives: paradox

The Paradox That is Humanity


Fanatical brutality and altruism. Greed and self-sacrifice. Torture and love. Cruelty and remorse. Care and wickedness. These are the paradoxical traits that make us uniquely human. Many people give of themselves, love unconditionally, exhibit kindness, selflessness and compassion at every turn. And yet, describing the immolation, crucifixions and beheadings of fellow humans by humans as inhuman or “beastial” rather misses the point. While some animals maim and kill their own, and even feast on the spoils, humans have risen above all other species to a pinnacle of barbaric behavior that demands that we all continually reflect on our humanity, both good and evil. Sadly, this is not news: persecution of one group by another is encoded in our DNA.

From the Guardian:

It describes itself as “an inclusive school where gospel values underpin a caring and supporting ethos, manifest in care for each individual”. And I have no reason to doubt it. But one of the questions raised by the popularity of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is whether St Thomas More Catholic School is named after a monster or a saint. With Mantel, gone is the More of heroic humanism popularised by Robert Bolt’s fawning A Man for All Seasons. In its place she reminds us that More was persecutor-in-chief towards those who struggled to see the Bible translated into English and personally responsible for the burning of a number of men who dared question the ultimate authority of the Roman church.

This week’s Wolf Hall episode ended with the death of Middle Temple lawyer James Bainham at Smithfield on 30 April 1532. More tortured Bainham in the Tower of London for questioning the sanctity of Thomas Becket and for speaking out against the financial racket of the doctrine of purgatory that “picked men’s purses”. At first, under the pressure of torture, Bainham recanted his views. But within weeks of being released, Bainham re-asserted them. And so More had him burnt at the stake.

The recent immolation of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State (Isis) brings home the horrendous reality of what this involves. I watched it on the internet. And I wish I hadn’t. I felt voyeuristic and complicit. And though I justified watching on the grounds that I was going to write about it, and thus (apparently) needed to see the truly horrific footage, I don’t think I was right to do so. As well as seeing things that I will never be able to un-see, I felt morally soiled – as if I had done exactly what Isis had wanted me to do. I mean, if no one ever watched this stuff,  they wouldn’t make it.

Afterwards, I wandered down to Smithfield market to get some air. I sat in a posh cafe and tried to picture what the place must have been like when Bainham was killed. Both then and now, death by burning was a staged event, deliberately public, a theatre of cruelty designed for political/religious instruction. In his book on burnings in 16th century England, the historian Eamon Duffy recounts a burning in Dartford in 1555: “‘Thither came … fruiterers wyth horse loades of cherries, and sold them’.” Can you imagine: passing round the cherries as you watch people burn? What sort of creatures are we?

Yes, religion is the common factor here. But if there is no God (as some say) and religion is a purely human phenomenon, then it is humanity that is also in the dock. For when we speak of these acts as “inhuman”, or of the “inhumanity” of Isis, we are surely kidding ourselves: history teaches that human beings are often exactly like this. We are often viciously cruel and without an ounce of pity and, yet, all too often in denial about our basic capacity for wickedness. One cannot be in denial after watching that video.

And yet the thing that it is almost impossible for us to get our heads around is that this capacity for wickedness can also co-exist with an extraordinary capacity for love and care and self-sacrifice. More, of course, is a perfect case in point. As well as being declared a saint, More was famously one of the early humanists, a friend of Erasmus. In his Utopia, he fantasised about a world where people lived together in harmony, with no private property to divide them. He championed female education and (believe it or not) religious toleration.

Robert Bolt may have only reflected one aspect of More’s character, but he did stand up for what he believed in, even to the point of death. And when More was declared a saint in 1935, it was partially a powerful and deliberate witness to German Christians to do the same. And who would have guessed that, within a few years, apparently civilized Europe would return again to the burning of human bodies, this time on an industrial scale. And this time, not in the name of God.

Read the entire article here.

Image: 12th century Byzantine manuscript illustration depicting Byzantine Greeks (Christian/Eastern Orthodox) punishing Cretan Saracens (Muslim) in the 9th century. Courtesy of Madrid Skylitzes / Wikipedia.


A Home for Art or A Home for Artists

Most art is made in a location that is very different and often far removed from the location in which it is displayed and/or purchased. In this time, it is highly unlikely that any new or emerging professional artist will make and sell art in the same place. This is particularly evident in a place like New York city where starving artists and wealthy patrons co-exist side by side.

From the New York Times:

Last week The Guardian published an essay by the singer-songwriter David Byrne, which received a fair amount of attention online, arriving under the headline “If the 1% Stifles New York’s Creative Talent, I’m Out of Here.”

What followed was considerably more nuanced than the kind of diatribe, now familiar, often delivered by artists and others who came of age in the city during the 1970s and yearn for the seductions of a vanished danger. In this view, the start of the last quarter of the 20th century left New York populated entirely by addicts and hustlers, painters and drug pushers, and the city was a better, more enlivening place for the anxieties it bred.

“I don’t romanticize the bad old days,” Mr. Byrne said in his piece. “I have no illusions that there was a connection between that city on its knees and a flourishing of creativity.” What he laments instead is that our cultural capital now languishes completely in the hands of a brash upper class.

On one level it seems difficult to argue with him. Current market realities make it inconceivable that anyone could arrive today in New York at 23 with a knapsack and a handful of Luna bars and become David Byrne.

We also famously live in an era of diminishing support for the arts. According to a report released last month, government arts financing reached a record low in 2011 at the same time the proportion of American households giving money to the arts dwindled to 8.6 percent. But perhaps the problem is one of paradox, not exclusion, which is to say that while New York has become an increasingly inhospitable place to incubate a career as an artist, it has become an ever easier place to experience and consume the arts. The evolution of Downtown Brooklyn’s cultural district is emblematic of this new democracy. Last week saw the official opening of BRIC House, a 66,000-square-foot building with a gallery space and another space for film screenings, readings, lectures and so on, all with no admission charges.

BRIC House, which is under the direction of Leslie Greisbach Schultz and occupies an old vaudeville theater into which the city has poured $41 million, also contains a flexible performance space where it will be possible to see dance and music from emerging and established artists largely for under $20. The ticket price of plays, offered as works in progress, is $10.

The upper floors are host to something called Urban Glass, a monument to the art of glass blowing. “There are people in this city who get as excited about glass blowing as I get about Junior’s,” the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, marveled to me.

Both BRIC, which offers classes in digital photography and video production for nothing or next to nothing, and the nearby Mark Morris Dance Center involve residents of Brooklyn public housing in free dance instruction. At Mark Morris it costs less to enroll a 3-year-old in a dance class with a teacher who is studying for a doctorate in philosophy than it does to enroll a child in Super Soccer Stars.

Further challenging claims about the end of culture in the city is that the number of public art exhibits grew under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s tenure. Additionally, through his private philanthropic efforts, Mr. Bloomberg has donated more than $230 million since 2002 to arts and social service organizations across the city. Over the summer, his foundation announced an additional contribution of $15 million to a handful of cultural institutions to help them enhance visitors’ experiences through mobile technology.

At BRIC — “the epicenter of the center of the artistic universe,” Mr. Markowitz calls it — as with other Brooklyn cultural institutions, a good deal of the progress has come about with the help of a quiet philanthropic community that exists far from the world of hedge-fund vanity. A handful of wealthy residents support the borough’s institutions, their names not the kind to appear in Women’s Wear Daily.

Read the entire article here.

Subjective Objectivism: The Paradox that is Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand: anti-collectivist ideologue, standard-bearer for unapologetic individualism and rugged self-reliance, or selfish, fantasist and elitist hypocrite?

Political conservatives and libertarians increasingly flock to her writings and support her philosophy of individualism and unfettered capitalism, which she dubbed, “objectivism”. On the other hand, liberals see her as selfish zealot, elitist, narcissistic, even psychopathic.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced and complex, especially the private Ayn Rand versus the very public persona. Thus those who fail to delve into Rand’s traumatic and colorful history fail to grasp the many paradoxes and contradictions that she enshrined.

Rand was firmly and vociferously pro-choice, yet she believed that women should submit to the will of great men. She was a devout atheist and outspoken pacifist, yet she believed Native Americans fully deserved their cultural genocide for not grasping capitalism. She viewed homosexuality as disgusting and immoral, but supported non-discrimination protection for homosexuals in the public domain, yet opposed such rights in private, all the while having an extremely colorful private life herself. She was a valiant opponent of government and federal regulation in all forms. Publicly, she viewed Social Security, Medicare and other “big government” programs with utter disdain, their dependents nothing more than weak-minded loafers and “takers”. Privately, later in life, she accepted payments from Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps most paradoxically, Rand derided those who would fake their own reality, while at the same time being chronically dependent on mind-distorting amphetamines; popping speed at the same time as writing her keystones to objectivism: Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

[div class=attrib]From the Guardian:[end-div]

As an atheist Ayn Rand did not approve of shrines but the hushed, air-conditioned headquarters which bears her name acts as a secular version. Her walnut desk occupies a position of honour. She smiles from a gallery of black and white photos, young in some, old in others. A bronze bust, larger than life, tilts her head upward, jaw clenched, expression resolute.

The Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, venerates the late philosopher as a prophet of unfettered capitalism who showed America the way. A decade ago it struggled to have its voice heard. Today its message booms all the way to Washington DC.

It was a transformation which counted Paul Ryan, chairman of the House budget committee, as a devotee. He gave Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, as Christmas presents and hailed her as “the reason I got into public service”.

Then, last week, he was selected as the Republican vice-presidential nominee and his enthusiasm seemed to evaporate. In fact, the backtracking began earlier this year when Ryan said as a Catholic his inspiration was not Rand’s “objectivism” philosophy but Thomas Aquinas’.

The flap has illustrated an acute dilemma for the institute. Once peripheral, it has veered close to mainstream, garnering unprecedented influence. The Tea Party has adopted Rand as a seer and waves placards saying “We should shrug” and “Going Galt”, a reference to an Atlas Shrugged character named John Galt.

Prominent Republicans channel Rand’s arguments in promises to slash taxes and spending and to roll back government. But, like Ryan, many publicly renounce the controversial Russian emigre as a serious influence. Where, then, does that leave the institute, the keeper of her flame?

Given Rand’s association with plutocrats – she depicted captains of industry as “producers” besieged by parasitic “moochers” – the headquarters are unexpectedly modest. Founded in 1985 three years after Rand’s death, the institution moved in 2002 from Marina del Rey, west of Los Angeles, to a drab industrial park in Irvine, 90 minutes south, largely to save money. It shares a nondescript two-storey building with financial services and engineering companies.

There is little hint of Galt, the character who symbolises the power and glory of the human mind, in the bland corporate furnishings. But the quotations and excerpts adorning the walls echo a mission which drove Rand and continues to inspire followers as an urgent injunction.

“The demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.”

These, said Onkar Ghate, the institute’s vice-president, are relatively good times for Randians. “Our primary mission is to advance awareness of her ideas and promote her philosophy. I must say, it’s going very well.”

On that point, if none other, conservatives and progressives may agree. Thirty years after her death Rand, as a radical intellectual and political force, is going very well indeed. Her novel Atlas Shrugged, a 1,000 page assault on big government, social welfare and altruism first published in 1957, is reportedly selling more than 400,000 copies per year and is being made into a movie trilogy. Its radical author, who also penned The Fountainhead and other novels and essays, is the subject of a recent documentary and spate of books.

To critics who consider Rand’s philosophy that “of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed”, her posthumous success is alarming.

Relatively little attention however has been paid to the institute which bears her name and works, often behind the scenes, to direct her legacy and shape right-wing debate.


[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Ayn Rand in 1957. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]