Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office, waiting for him to get to me, reexamining the various implements on the dentist chair and half listening to the conversation between my orthodontist and one of his assistants.

The orthodontist described how he was taking care of his elderly next-door neighbor’s lawn and was in general looking out for him – certainly very kind behavior on his part.

His assistant agreed that it was very sweet of him, adding with a sincere expression, “It’ll bring you good karma. It really will.”

That struck me. A fellow does kind things and it is natural to believe that it will somehow help his own life in the future. But how does that happen – how does one explain that feeling? Once you’ve stopped believing in God, I suppose karma is all that’s left.

When this assistant, who is a perfectly pleasant and well-intentioned lady, sits down to her Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, whom does she imagine that she is thanking?

“Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this meal,” she will say (or will at least mean). But thank who? Is she thanking her karma? Is she thanking herself perhaps – “good work on getting through another year”? But it would seem sort of silly to have a national day of personal self-congratulation.

Thanksgiving Day is of course a religious holiday – one that an atheist cannot celebrate. The first American Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by the Puritans, but it did not become a annual holiday until Lincoln made it one in 1864. In April 1865, two days after the war ended and four days before he was murdered, he declared a special day of Thanksgiving in the last speech he ever made, “He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated.”

Lincoln was never in doubt as to whom we give our thanks. Maybe he had a point.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tories on Totalitarianism

Last week I promised some doubly exciting material in exchange for a brief respite. What I have therefore settled on is that I will write a regular column this week, which will appear as an additional post this Wednesday.

And now for the traditional Tory account:

On Wednesday, November 16, the Tories met in the Saybrook Athenaeum Room to debate the Resolution: “This House Prefers Totalitarianism to Anarchy” – “This House” referring to the Tory Party, of course.

It was another of those philosophical topics that one can’t really research. I was not happy with the prospect of endorsing either totalitarianism or anarchy. I expected that those in the negative would be ranking anarchy over totalitarianism, but decided that the negative could also choose neither one (voting simply to refuse to endorse totalitarianism over anything).

I finished my weekly shiur at the Slifka Center at 7:00, and ran back to my dorm in fairly heavy rain (I had been carrying an umbrella around with me all day, but had cleverly left in my room before going to dinner). I made it back to my dorm in record time and wetness, and changed into jacket and tie. At the last minute I decided to look up Patrick Henry’s famous “liberty or death” speech, and went to the debate at 7:30 armed with the last two lines.

It was around a quarter-hour’s wait before the Tory with the key showed up to let us into the Athenaeum Room – no harm done, however, as Saybrook’s entry archway protected us from the weather. The chief whip was not with us, as he was recuperating from an oppressive workload, and former chairman was off campaigning for the position of Vice President of the YPU (he came to join us later in the evening).

By the time we were let into the room there were six or seven of us. We went about our essential pre-debate duties of hanging up the Tory Banner, milling about, and making aggressive use of the provostery (which was stocked with the finest refreshments and snacks, as is traditional). Our Tory Temporary Sword had been temporarily misplaced, so we were using our Backup Tory Temporary Sword, which was exactly like the other letter opener except that this one wasn’t even sharp.

We had a healthy showing as the chairman gaveled the meeting to order. The secretary read the minutes from the previous debate, and no additions, corrections, or amendments followed, so the minutes were approved as read. The secretary then stood again to read the night’s resolution:

“Resolved: This House Prefers Totalitarianism to Anarchy.”

The first affirmative speech of the evening was given by a newly inducted Tory who had volunteered to speak in the absence of a docketed first speech. He spoke rather eloquently (as a fellow who studies acting and has a definite flair for the dramatic) and argued that of the two options, totalitarianism on the one hand and anarchy on the other, totalitarianism is more likely to move towards democracy and has the additional benefit of occasionally doing something constructive (for example, a totalitarian government may improve its economy whereas an anarchy has no economy to improve). He seemed to overlook the totalitarian government’s occasional propensity to genocidal behavior, but I planned to bring this up later.

I had in the meantime quietly asked the provost (and acting chief whip) if anyone was docketed to speak first in the negative. He said that he had been on the docket, though he would gladly let me take it if I wished to. Pointing out that I had twice recently given opening speeches, however, I decided that I would make the second speech in the negative instead.

The first speaker in the affirmative had said nothing that I wished to challenge him on at that point, and after a few questions he was thanked and returned to his seat.

The provost duly volunteered to give the opening speech in the negative, and argued that anarchy, which contains less concerted evil, is preferable to totalitarianism. In anarchy at least one is not forced to serve a tyrant, and is in a better position to perpetuate a reasonable form of government.

The provost too answered his questions and was thanked. For my own part, I was a little surprised that I hadn’t asked any yet.

The second speech in the affirmative was given by a freshman (possibly to become a Tory later in the year?) who focused on the constructive side of totalitarianism. It is true, he pointed out, that a tyranny is an evil form of government; at the very least though, if that government decides that it is in the national interest to build a road from one place to another it can have that road built. In anarchy if one wished to travel from one place to another there will be no system of transportation and one’s only choice is to walk by himself.

I did, of course, ask the gentleman what use a road was if he was not free to travel on it. He answered that while a tyranny could certainly prevent you from traveling, it is not in their interest (at least from an economic point of view) to restrict the individual’s movements completely.

At the end of his question session he was thanked and I was recognized for the second speech in the negative:

“It seems we are being asked to make a choice between totalitarianism and anarchy – between one form of slavery and another. Totalitarianism is of course a form of slavery where one’s rights are usurped by the state. Equally, anarchy means slavery because there is so much freedom that there is really no freedom at all. One is in constant danger from the individual instead of the government; a man may be able to do whatever he wants, but so can the fellow next to him.

“So, given this choice between two evil systems, between totalitarianism and anarchy, I choose neither. And I am in the negative not because I am endorsing anarchy, but because I refuse to endorse tyranny over anything. If I were plopped down into either system I would be forced to fight. If I were in a tyranny I would fight for liberty just as in anarchy.

“As Patrick Henry asked the Continental Congress in 1775, ‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?’ I answer as did Mr. Henry, ‘give me liberty, or give me death!’

“And with that I yield the floor to questions.”

There were plenty of questions for me to answer. At least part of the Tory body seemed disappointed that I was refusing to choose between totalitarianism and anarchy but. Nevertheless I stuck to my guns, defending the plain view of the resolution. I was asked several times with subtle variation which of the two systems I would prefer to be plopped down in if I had to make a choice. This was, of course, irrelevant.

I was finally thanked and I returned to my seat.

A significant number of Tories through the evening looked too devotedly to the fact that totalitarian regimes are capable of greater concerted activity than is anarchy, without examining too carefully what that activity was likely to be. I tried to continue to make that point in questions – if totalitarianism is not preferable to death, as Patrick Henry explained, how can we call it preferable to anything?

The SSCY, who often takes what would appear to be a libertarian tack, argued that one's chances of survival were statistically greater in a totalitarian regime and that that one was therefore to be preferred. He suggested that one was more likely to put one's chips on a winning number in roulette than he was to be hauled off to a gulag. I of course volunteered the point of information:

"Is it not in fact the case that while one's chances of winning a single number bet are one in thirty-five, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia succeeded in murdering one entire third of the country's population?"

This was in fact the case – except for the fact that odds were a little different than I had remembered. I was able to offer in a subsequent point of information that while the payoff in roulette is thirty-five to one, the odds are actually one in thirty-seven for a single-zero and one in thirty-eight for a double-zero wheel. Fortunately this did not detract greatly from my argument.

A very good speech was given later in the evening in the negative by a new Tory who examined the question from the point of view of a man who can come in four important permutations: he may have courage and morals, he may have neither, or he may have courage or morals alone.

For the man with both courage and morals – the ideal Tory – life in a totalitarian regime was obviously unacceptable, where no man with morals could grovel at the feet of a dictator and no man with courage could refuse to fight (and thus would likely not remain alive very long).

A little later, the drama-studying Tory gave a very flashy second speech:

He stood after being recognized and walked up to the chair. “Mr. Chairman,” he said, extending his hand to shake. As the Tory leaned over to shake hands with the chairman (which was unusual during a debate) he very quickly reached under with his other hand and smoothly snatched the gavel from the chairman’s grasp. Before any of us (chairman included) realized what had happened the Tory was in the middle of the room with the gavel, and began tossing it from one person to another. He made the questionable decision to toss it to me and I handed it off to the secretary, who returned it to its rightful owner. At this point the provost grabbed the fellow’s arm and nearly ejected him from the room.

“You have just witnessed a display of anarchy,” he said, and went on to propose that the Tory party was itself a totalitarian-style mini-government – and that we were better off for it. Several of us immediately challenged his conclusion in questions, which were quick and to the point. The Tory party was not a totalitarian regime, and we could further see from the way that order was quickly restored that we had not really witnessed anarchy. As much as the fellow’s speech lacked a true philosophical underpinning, I nevertheless admired his daring. At the very least it had been entertaining.

There were a few more speeches given, and it seemed as though the body might be tipping to the affirmative, which would be a disaster. Nevertheless, even a tie-vote would make the resolution fail. I did my best to remind members who might be “on the fence” (as I was accused of being) that they did not have to “choose” anarchy to vote in the negative.

When there were no more speeches to be given, the chairman deputized an acting sergeant at arms to divide the body. He asked the affirmatives to step to his right, and the negatives to stand on his left.

As Tories began to move it at first looked as though we might be soundly defeated. When things had settled down a bit, however, there were seven on the affirmative side of the room and six on the negative. The decision still rested on the remaining voters – the sergeant at arms and the secretary.

The sergeant at arms leaned over and whispered the count – that now included his own vote – to the secretary, and the secretary leaned towards the chairman. The room was so quiet that we could hear her whispering “eight in the affirmative, seven in the negative”. This meant that that chairman could vote if he so choose (for he may vote only when he would change the outcome or to break a tie).

But which side would the chairman choose? He had given no speech during the evening to indicate his preference.

We all watched him with, as Spencer Tracy would say, baited breath, as the chairman sat there with a mild smile on his face, contemplating his options.

At length he sat up straight and announced, “The vote is eight in the affirmative, eight in the negative; the resolution fails.”

At this announcement the negative side of the room burst into applause, thankful that the chairman’s perception had allowed us to squeak by a victory by the narrowest possible margin – zero votes. The important thing is that the resolution failed.

Following the motion to adjourn, it was time to move on to Yorkside. I had to choose, however, between going for a late-night snack with the Tories and getting up early the next day to go to minyan (morning prayers, for which we must have at least ten men). Uncharacteristically, I decided to do both. I was therefore able to enjoy nearly another hour of the Tories company, as we conducted our post-debate discussion over some ice cream.

There was plenty left to discuss, even after forty-five minutes or so at Yorkside, but we eventually began to feel the growing lateness of the hour. After a brief escapade brought on by the problem that arises when everyone has only twenty dollar bills in his wallet (those darned ATMs won't give you anything else) we bade each other goodnight and headed back to our respective dorms.

I got up on time for minyan the next morning, not exactly refreshed but at least not as tired as I should have been. Oh well – vacation was coming up anyway.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Blog Break

Dear readers,
I find myself temporarily buried under an impressive heap of homework and midterms. As a result I will not be able to bring you a piece this week. Please check back next week for a doubly exciting post.