Monday, November 25, 2013

Nuclear Showers

Watching. Always a favourite pastime. Most migrants or travellers, vagabonds and sojourners are like mermen - or, indeed, mermaids. We’re stranded, often at our own request,  between two worlds, our tongues  and familiars traded in for new identities that are like a pair of shoes bought in the sales that never quite fit, where we want to belong to both worlds, but can’t fit into either no matter how hard we bend and stretch.

As for me, I quite like the duality of identity – the ability to be partly both, sometimes at the same time, to feel that connection and sense of belonging in both worlds, here and there.

We all woke up this morning to a to a new reality. Somehow, while all of us in Israel were sleeping, the US and Iran signed an agreement and where we once belonged in the water, suddenly and inexplicably, the evolutionary jump took place and we all grew legs. Now, the choices shorten. Big Brother over the water isn’t going to pick on the school bully any more on our, or their, behalf. Instead, he’s going to wag his finger and threaten detention which doubtless sends a frisson of fear through the diplomatic ranks in Tehran, sniggering behind their hands. So, here, everybody has to learn to stand up for themselves. Again. 
If the ‘historic mistake’ is indeed nothing more than Machiavellian slipperiness, only time will tell. But, maybe a red line has been crossed and five years down the line we might all get to find out.

Today is sunny, with the possibility of nuclear showers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Following Orders

I have been busy elsewhere. Writing an astrophysics course has been challenging both to memory and ingenuity and an alarming number of my worked examples seem to be being centred on the impossibly bloated Betelgeuse, a red supergiant which if it replaced the Sun would be half as hot with a radius extending beyond Jupiter. My students have been considering the history of astronomy, Galileo's muttered double blind when he recanted his recantation at his trial, and his famous letter to Johannes Kepler which read:-

"My dear Kepler,
What would you say of the learned here who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope?  What should we make of this? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?"

Galileo had expected the telescope to make good Catholics believers in the Copernican system of a heliocentric universe where the planets obediently rolled around a Sun at its centre. Alas, scholasticism and its accompanying dogma set him at such odds with the Church that he was arrested and put on trial by the Inquisition for heresy. Dressed in the white shirt of the penitent, he was forced to abjure his 'heretical nonsense' in a court of law. Legend has it that sotto voce he said at the end 'yet, it doth move'.

Of course, the Inquisitors were really only 'doing their job'. They believed in the infallibility of their system, just as, presumably, Adolf Eichmann did at his trial since his primary defence was identical to Galileo's inquisitors.  
A simple glance through the telescope of morality and natural justice should have convinced him of the spectacularly heartless evil which he had perpetrated and encouraged vast numbers of others to participate in. But, no. He was just "doing his job". The Shoah writhes ceaselessly here, just under the surface of society, a monster ready once again to bare its teeth. Historian David Cesarani has challenged the widely accepted view that Eichmann was just a faceless, obedient bureaucrat. At the behest of his superior, Adolf Hitler, he was merely carrying out orders. Instead, at his trial, he created a 'deliberately banal fa├žade' in order to deceive his prosecutors. Cesarani would have us believe that he was a man of bestial evil, stained and twisted by an evil system into performing the unthinkable.

I am indebted to Adam Grant who suggests that bad, or evil people opt into bad situations. Eichmann’s Nazi convictions and his unquestioning obedience to orders were part of the same ideological package. Either he actually wanted to kill Jews or he didn’t care if they perished. The Jews, in other words, had no intrinsic claim to life.

Returning to Grant's core proposition, can we argue that if good, or at least, not bad people are put in a bad situation, bad things will happen? If true, this is cold-bloodedly alarming. A Yale, psychologist Stanley Milgram provided some evidence, showing that ordinary men would inflict severe pain on others simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. When a man failed to learn a set of words, a scientist in a white coat told them to deliver increasingly harmful electric shocks. “It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society,” Milgram lamented.
At Stanford, psychologist Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned students to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards in a realistic prison environment. 
Quite rapidly, basic humanity fell away, and arbitrary cruelty overwhelmed the participants; the 'guards' forced the 'prisoners' to sleep on concrete and took away their clothes. “In only a few days, people became sadistic,” Zimbardo wrote: the “power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.”

I couldn't help asking myself 'what kind of person would actually have volunteered for the Stanford experiment?' Had I myself volunteered, for example, would I too abandon core values and basic humanity for some kind of material reward? Or, could I - indeed would I - withstand peer pressure, the security of conformity and follow the dictates of my conscience?  Would I have 'followed orders' as Eichmann contended or, indeed, would I too have condemned Galileo? In truth, I don't know. And, neither do any of us.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Pillar to Post

I haven't climbed a tree since I was about ten, I suppose. The thought of attempting to do so now is, I have to say, not altogether tempting. Particularly a broad-leafed, sturdily mature sycamore which might require a bit of determination to haul one's carcase to a sufficiently favourable vantage point.  All this, of course, is because I sometimes imagine myself to be a kind of professional Zacchaeus. Not in the vertically challenged sense, of course, but in the sense of one who tends these days to keep a dignified distance from hullabaloo and crowdly hilarity. Which, I suppose, brings me nicely to what I want to say. If the Son of God had shouted up at me, peeping down like a wood-nymph, and invited himself round for a spot of lunch, I think my first response might have been to direct Him to the nearest Marriott where He might find adequate and nutritious refreshment.

Because He certainly would not have found it chez moi at the moment.

Let me explain. A fortnight ago, I fetched up on the shores of the Land like a somewhat bedraggled Crusader with considerable baggage excess and was directed to present myself at a Hostel. I am not altogether familiar with such establishments but at close to one in the morning, I'd've shared a stable with a cow. Upon entering the premises, I looked around. There seemed to be an abundance of young persons, clearly intent on festivity, but - no bellhop, sadly. I checked in. My room was on the third floor and it appeared that one was expected to drag whatever one was burdened with oneself. I looked around my room, rather hoping for access to room service and cable TV, but both were conspicuous by their absence. The word 'hostel', then, appeared to evoke a passing resemblance to 'hotel', minus the 's', for service. English hostelries are characterised by merry laughter, horse-brasses over the bar and tweedy locals drinking pints of warm, foaming ale from pewter tankards, served by buxom young women, thus I had clearly been misled. Instead, there was an empty glass on the first floor bar with a paper label on it saying 'Jesus would have tipped'.
At this point, I should make it clear that the mournful little blue donkey, my alter ego, was completely vindicated by his new surroundings and it took him a day or two to adjust. Just as I began to feel, if not exactly at home, a bit less like a refugee, I was tossed out on my ear because the place was full and I had to find alternative accommodation while my new apartment which had been closely negotiated over a period of several days was being 'finished off'.
Some days passed. I received a call informing me that all was ready. Leaping into a taxi and tipping the driver extravagantly, I fetched up at my brand spanking new apartment, an exuberant and optimistic tortoise carrying all his worldly goods on his back, expecting to find all the comforts of home packaged tastefully in a sixth floor penthouse. There was a fridge, a single bed, a rickety chair and an alarmingly asymmetric gap under the front door. The elevator didn't work and the electrical wiring was experimental to the point of  presenting a clear and present danger of summary electrocution. A vast expanse of wooden flooring and not much else met my appalled and outraged gaze. In short, the workmen had not so much failed to finish off, they hadn't quite got around to starting. Quite a number of people of varying degrees of seniority came, commiserated and went and after a short period of weeping and gnashing of teeth I am cautiously hopeful that the place might actually be habitable in the foreseeable future. Currently, there is a sort of space where the cooker thingy is supposed to go and inviting people round for dinner would seem not to be on my immediate agenda, consequently if the Son of God had invited himself round, he'd've had to be OK with a cheese sandwich and a glass of water.