Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Animals Can Teach Us about Right and Wrong

by Madeleine Kando

This post is dedicated to my daughter Aniko,
who never needed to learn how to be compassionate.
I only wish there were more people like her.

One of the loftiest qualities of humans is their ability to distinguish right from wrong. We call it morality. Without a sense of morality, we would soon descend in a state of anarchy, where no one is accountable for their actions. Some societies are already on the brink of anarchy, the so-called 'failed states' of the world, where citizens are never sure whether they will live or die any day of their lives. Morality is the glue that binds people together, it creates the space where the give and take between people takes place. Without it, life would be worse than death since being dead at least doesn't cause someone to suffer.

But why do we aspire to be moral to begin with? We want to be healthy, happy, free of pain, that is understandable. We call these 'natural' desires, but why do we desire to be moral? A biologist would ask: What do we gain by it? How does it serve our survival as a species? Thomas Hobbes thought he had the answer by saying that the natural state of man is "warre of every man against every man" and to prevent people from hacking each other to death, they needed to have a moral code. Obviously Hobbes didn't believe in man's innate goodness.

That is pretty much how our culture has branded human nature over the past few centuries. We are selfish bastards who have developed a system which forces us to cooperate with each other by submitting to a self-imposed structure. Thanks to our superior intellect, we have escaped the fate that nature imposes on the world, the cruel, barbaric law of the jungle that all species is subject to. With the help of philosophers like Malthus who anticipated Darwin's principle of the struggle for existence, it is widely accepted as a law of nature. This view leads one to assume that if you are nice, you are a patsy.



But just because we have irrevocably painted ourselves in the corner of selfishness, doesn't mean that we don't have the capacity for compassion. Primatologist Frans De Waal explains in Good Natured-The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, 'In the same way that birds and airplanes appear to defy the law of gravity yet are fully subjected to it, moral decency may appear to fly in the face of natural selection yet still be one of its many products.' Read more...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Europe’s Inability to Get Angry - Part Two



In my previous post, I asked whether the European opinion leaders had lost the capacity for anger when Europeans are under attack.

Obviously, there are still plenty of people in Europe who are capable of anger. These are the politically incorrect. They are the rednecks. They are the equivalent of what Jerry Falwell used to call the “silent majority.” They represent the political RIGHT. Many of them support very unsympathetic characters, some of them with fascistoid tendencies. They are “populists,” often nativists, and racists. They follow demagogues such as Geert Wilders in Holland and his equivalents elsewhere. France has Marine Le Pen, fretting about the Arabization of her country. Hungary has its Jobbik movement, a sinister fascist group that has lynched gypsies. There are the people who recently attacked, damaged and burned mosques in Sweden. There are the people who have been marching  to kick immigrants out of Germany. It is noteworthy that xenophobia is strongest in the EASTERN part of Germany, precisely where there are the fewest immigrants. These groups are the equivalent of America’s Tea Party and its Republican Party. Read more...

Charlie Hebdo and Europe’s Inability to Get Angry - Part One



I just spent nearly three weeks in Europe. I was there for elder care. My mother is nearly 102. She recently fell, so my sisters and I had to go help out. Going back and forth across half the world is becoming increasingly tedious for me. I do this a lot, and I am exhausted, sometimes becoming sick myself from the stress and the hassles. But this isn’t what I want to write about. I am going to write about world events and my trans-Atlantic perspective on them.

I also just saw “American Sniper,” and I am struck by the contrast between the European and the American responses to (Muslim) violence. The Clint Eastwood/ Bradley Cooper film is reasonably entertaining, but its extreme popularity disturbs me. It has broken all box office records.

American patriotism and flag waving have been at an all-time high since 9-11. But it is faux patriotism: We paste ribbons on our cars and we send the professionals to fight and die. Fewer than half of one percent of us “defend freedom.” Things were different when there was a draft, as during the Vietnam war. I am not condoning the terrible way veterans were treated then. I’m just saying that back then, most Americans were not as gung-ho for war, because their own hide was at stake. Applauding at the end of “American Sniper” is easy.
Read more...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Muslims Urged to Condemn Terrorists: What Madness!'



A few days after the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, an article appeared on the French News website Rue89 entitled: 'Muslims urged to condemn terrorists: What Madness!' 

Here is a brief translation: 'It is absurd that we ask Muslims to dissociate themselves from Islamic barbarism! It is like asking women to dissociate themselves from Nabilla (a curvaceous French reality show star). Why do Muslims feel they need to condemn this heinous act more strongly than others? Why have the British Muslims launched an anti-terrorism campaign under the slogan "Not in My Name"? It presupposes that every Muslim is connected to Islamist terrorism and that it must publicly cut this link. This logic falls under what is called "Islamophobia". It's a crazy logic. So insanity against insanity, here is a list of 'désolidarisations' that should have been required. who knows why it didn't.'

The article then has a long list of absurd examples, to prove their point, such as 'We don't ask divers to dissociate themselves from those who sank the Rainbow Warrior, etc.'. The list casually also includes statements such as: 'We did not ask Christians to distance themselves from the Ku Klux Klan' and 'We did not ask the Basques to dissociate from the terrorist actions of ETA'.
Read more...

Friday, January 9, 2015

Do Generations Repeat Themselves?



We don't need experts to tell us which generation we belong to in the familial sense. We know it when we look in the mirror. We all go through the same stages of life: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, old age and for the lucky few, late old age.

Before the 19th century, when people looked at the world as a fairly static place, even the social meaning of  a generations simply meant 'all men (and women) living more or less at the same time' (Emile Litr√©). One batch of living beings was replaced by another when they died, like water flowing through a river. In that sense, my 101 year old mother, my daughter, my 3 year old grandson and I are considered one generation.

But when society began to be viewed as progressing, not just in time but also qualitatively, experts began to look at generations as groups of individuals born during a certain period, whose character was influenced by the historical events of their time. It became a tool to form a collective identity. Now we are not only subdivided by age, but by our experiences and we are assigned certain characteristics. If you are part of the 'Greatest Generation', you are 'a conservative saver, hard-working, with a high sense of moral obligation, patriotism and respect for authority'. If you are a baby boomer, you are 'experimental, individualistic, free spirited and social cause oriented'. Even the newest cohort, still in their diapers, has already been labeled. The Homeland or Alpha generation will be 'the most formally educated, most materialistic and technology-focused.'
Read more...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Our Best Wishes for the Winter Solstice

Dear readers

We were going to wish you a Happy New Year, as we have done these past years, but after legal counsel, we were advised to rethink our actions, since wishing you a good year, good health and prosperity would submit us to a liability risk. Therefore, we are posting a corrected version of our wishes, which is in compliance with the precautionary principles brought to our attention.

New formulation: We ask you to accept, without any obligation implicit or explicit on your part, our best wishes on the occasion of the winter solstice and the first of the year, in line with the tradition, the religion or the existentialist values of your choice, including your right to demonstrate your indifference to popular festivities as scheduled.

These wishes are more particularly:

1) health: this does not mean that we are assuming any particular knowledge of your medical record, or of any desire to interfere with the confidential dialog established with your physician or your insurer. Read more...

Monday, December 29, 2014

In Praise of Immigrants



I am an immigrant. A documented one, from a Northern European country. I am an immigrant through and through and proud of what I have become because of it. I began my immigrant career at the age of four, when my family moved to France from Hungary, right before the Iron Curtain closed off many of the countries of Eastern Europe and made them satellite states of the Soviet Union.

A child of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a Gentile, born amongst the rubble of World War II, I became a political refugee and grew up in Paris and Amsterdam. You couldn't ask for a better apprenticeship if you are an aspiring immigrant.

I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege of living my life where several cultures meet. Maybe because of my gypsy roots, I have always felt a sense of adventure by moving about and living in new places. There was a childish excitement brewing in me, especially when I came to America. It was huge, wild and seemed to fit my disorderly and chaotic nature. Read more...