Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation

Exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library

By Fred Mazelis
13 March 2015

At the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 23 through June 7, 2015

With the approach of the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, followed less than a week later by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, attention is once again focused on the US Civil War, and on the president who led the military and political struggle that ended with the abolition of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln

A small but informative exhibition at New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum makes use of portions of Lincoln’s correspondence, speeches and notes to illuminate the life of its subject, which has already been treated in some 15,000 books as well as about 200 film and television productions, including most recently Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013).

Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation, on view through June 7, was organized by the Morgan Library and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which has amassed some 60,000 documents held at the New York Historical Society. About two-thirds of the 80 letters and other original items in the current show, most of them in Lincoln’s hand, were loaned by the Institute, with most of the remaining documents coming from the Morgan itself.

It is fascinating to see this material up close, and to read the remarkably clear handwriting of Lincoln himself in many of his letters, military orders and other documents. The Civil War comes alive and the democratic and revolutionary content of Lincoln’s words is vividly displayed.

The exhibition is divided into nine somewhat overlapping sections, each dealing with a period of Lincoln’s life or career. These include, among others, “Lincoln the Reader,” “the Politician,” “the Emancipator,” “Commander-in-Chief,” “Lincoln in the Eyes of the World” and “A Man For All Time.”

Lincoln’s passion for reading and knowledge, from an early age, is illustrated with references to the King James version of the Bible, Blackstone’s Commentaries, dealing with the development of English law, and especially the works of Shakespeare, much of which Lincoln knew by heart. One of the volumes of Shakespeare owned by the future president is opened to Macbeth, which Lincoln knew best of all of the plays.

This reading was crucial in shaping Lincoln’s thought and language as he embarked on a political career that would bring him to the White House at the most crucial moment in 19th century American history. The language and style of his letters and speeches were marked by an extraordinary combination of the simple and even homespun with elevated and elegant prose, which inspired his readers and listeners.

Lincoln had no love for the grandiloquent and flowery oratory for which US senator and statesman Daniel Webster and others were noted. He strove for cogency, without a trace of demagogy or oversimplification of the issues and principles involved. He connected with his listeners, and never talked down to them. The clarity and simplicity is illustrated in the relative brevity of his speeches, most famously the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address.

As is well known, Lincoln proceeded extremely cautiously on the question of abolition. However, he made no attempt to hide his hatred of slavery and this finds expression in the exhibition in a speech fragment from 1858, in which he praises the British abolitionists William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, Lincoln threw himself into the details of military strategy in addition to dealing with the political crisis. He mixed easily with Northern troops and there was nothing that smacked of militarism or ceremony in his actions in office, something that was shown effectively in Spielberg’s film. The reverence for Lincoln among the troops is illustrated by a letter from John Jones of the Illinois Infantry, who wrote, in response to the news of the Emancipation Proclamation: “The name of Abraham Lincoln will be handed down to posterity as one of the great benefactors of this country, not surpassed by the immortal Washington himself.”

Lincoln’s could also be absolutely single-minded and even ruthless in the prosecution of the war against secession. Some of the documents in the Morgan exhibition express the ruthless logic of the bloody war—the “irrepressible conflict”—and how it put all of the political protagonists to the test. Lincoln met this revolutionary test, and that is above all why he remains, perhaps alongside Jefferson, the greatest of American presidents.

One example of Lincoln’s leadership, and the shifts in his thinking and actions as the war progressed, can be found in his March 1863 letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson, the same individual who became vice president after Lincoln’s reelection about 18 months later. “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed force for restoring the union,” Lincoln wrote. “The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.” These words revealed a growing understanding of the revolutionary character of the struggle, which constituted the greatest expropriation of private property until the Russian Revolution more than half a century later.

Another illustration in the Morgan Library exhibition is General Order No. 252. In response to attacks by Confederate forces on freed slaves, Lincoln ordered, “For every black soldier killed by Confederates, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor.”

Among the other documents on display are a printed copy of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, only weeks before he died, and a signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, and first adopted by the Senate in 1864.

In the section of the exhibition on “Lincoln in the Eyes of the World,” emphasis is correctly given to the relationship between the fight to end chattel slavery and the ideals of the Enlightenment. The relationship between the Civil War and the American and French Revolutions of the past century was widely understood at the time. Just as important, the anti-slavery struggle was inseparably bound up with struggles of the working class, above all in Englandof the Victorian era. The abolition of slavery had a worldwide impact, and the murder of Lincoln met with an outpouring of grief not only in the US but around the world.

Among the interesting items here is an autograph manuscript of Frederick Douglass in 1880 in which the most famous escaped slave, the eloquent orator and abolitionist, paid tribute to Lincoln as “one of the noblest wisest and best men I ever knew.” Also on display is an autograph copy of Walt Whitman’s famous “O Captain! My Captain!” the 1865 poem inspired by Lincoln’s death. And noted as well is the famous tribute paid by Karl Marx to Lincoln as “the single-minded son of the working class.”

Also presented are the words of two subsequent US presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and later Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose speech at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938 is displayed.

The appearance of Bill Clinton in a short video presentation that forms part of the exhibition only demonstrates the gulf between the leaders of American capitalism today and the president who helped lay the basis for the rapid economic and social development of the United States when capitalism still had a progressive role to play.

Clinton emphasizes Lincoln’s determination to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War—true enough, but this entirely leaves out the revolutionary character of the period. He also speaks of Lincoln as representing “equality of opportunity—the right to rise.”

The representatives of the financial oligarchy in the US today cannot possibly explain the role of Lincoln and of the Civil War. In this regard, the role of Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the founders of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, should be noted. Both are wealthy Wall Street figures and right-wing Republicans, associated with such reactionary outfits as the Club for Growth. Their passion for American history is bound up with notions of “American exceptionalism.” For them the Civil War is to be celebrated as the triumph of capitalism, the supposed summit of human civilization. Clinton of course associates himself with this view.

The documents in this exhibit speak for themselves. They show that Lincoln led a revolutionary struggle to destroy an outmoded social order. This is why Marx, the founder of scientific socialism, enthusiastically welcomed this Second American Revolution, and lauded Lincoln for his resolve and leadership. Lincoln stood in the tradition of his revolutionary forebears, including Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. The struggle for equality in the 19th century, with which the name of Lincoln will forever be associated, resonates in the struggle against outmoded capitalism today.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/13/linc-m13.html

RIP Terry Pratchett: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER”

The beloved fantasy author died at age 66 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease

RIP Terry Pratchett: "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER"
Terry Pratchett (Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Prolific fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett has passed away at the age of 66, after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He continued to write throughout his illness, completing the 40th “Discworld” book last spring, which he did through the help of dictation and speech recognition software. He has often spoken publicly about his illness and became a staunch advocate for assisted death after his diagnosis (according to a source at the Telegraph, he died of natural causes).

Pratchett has written more than 70 books over his long career, including 41 books in the popular Discworld series, and has sold over 85-million books worldwide. He is the second most widely-read writer in the UK — and was, for a long time, the first, before being unseated by J.K. Rowling. He has many other accomplishments to his name, including the Carnegie Medal for his Discworld kids book “The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents”, as well as the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and a Knighthood, not to mention enriching the lives of millions of readers across the globe.

Pratchett’s death was announced via a series of tweets from his Twitter account, describing an encounter with Pratchett and “Death,” who was a character in the Discworld novels.



“The world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds,” read a statement from Larry Finlay at Pratchett’s publishing company Transworld. “In over 70 books, Terry enriched the planet like few before him. As all who read him know, Discworld was his vehicle to satirize this world: He did so brilliantly, with great skill, enormous humour and constant invention. Terry faced his Alzheimer’s disease (an ‘embuggerance’, as he called it) publicly and bravely. Over the last few years, it was his writing that sustained him. His legacy will endure for decades to come.”

Anna Silman is Salon’s deputy entertainment editor. Follow her on Twitter:@annaesilman.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/12/rip_terry_pratchett_at_last_sir_terry_we_must_walk_together/?source=newsletter

Philip Levine (1928–2015): A poet of working class life and struggle

By Dorota Niemitz and Matthew Brennan
5 March 2015

The poet Philip Levine died on February 14, at the age of 87, in Fresno, California. Levine’s poetry is often associated with depictions of industrial working class life and struggle, particularly in and around Detroit.

Born in Detroit in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Levine himself was a factory worker for more than a decade, beginning at the age of 14. Among the factory and industrial jobs he held in the Detroit area were ones at the Cadillac Engine, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, and Wyandotte Chemical factories.

Phillip Levine, September 2006, photo by David Shankbone

In his early teens Levine was initially inspired by poetry after reading Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem Arms and the Boy. He later enrolled in the English department at Wayne State University, and became interested in Keats, Whitman, Hardy, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. He noted the connection between his work life and his growing artistic aspirations in an interview with Studs Terkel. “I was working in factories and also trying to write. I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here; it doesn’t exist.’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it. And I sort of took a vow to myself … I was going to write the poetry of these people.”

In 1953 Levine enrolled in the University of Iowa Writing program, studying under the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He considered Berryman his “one great mentor” in poetry, and speaks movingly of him in his autobiography The Bread of Time. Pursuing an academic career, he eventually became a professor of literature at Fresno State University in 1958, a position he held until he retired in 1992.

Levine’s published body of poetry spans from 1961 (On The Edge) to 2009 (News of the World). Some of his more well-known books of poetry include Not This Pig (1963), They Feed They Lion (1974), The Names of the Lost (1976),A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988), and The Simple Truth (1995). He won a Pulitzer Prize for this last work. Capping a long list of literary awards received over his lifetime, he was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

Levine’s poetry and poetic style, at its best, captured the complexity and beauty behind the harsh exterior of social life for working people. Often his poems depicted daily urban American life through both chaotic and mundane images—the factories, smog and soil, the smell of bread, eggs and butter, grease and sweat, fevered children, snowstorms, cluttered diesel truck cabins, an assembly press malfunction, a winter-beaten garden, or a mother’s work clothes. He could tell a genuinely moving story and evoke honest imagery without sliding into sentimentality.

Back-breaking work, dreams, drudgery and love could find sudden, unexpected intersection in his poems. Take for instance, parts of “What Work Is,” or “Of Love and Other Disasters:”

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work isif you’re
old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.
(…)
The sad refusal to give in to
rain, the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German (…)

– from “What Work Is”

The punch press operator from up north
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium
(…)
how the grease ate so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. “The lifeline,”
he said, “which one is that?” “None,”
she said (…)”

from “Of Love and Other Disasters”

Levine’s appeal was also due in part to the accessibility and directness of his free-verse poems, which relied on familiar, accurate, and authentic language –all the more impressive in an era (the 1960s through early 1990s) when postmodernism and its impenetrable jargon began to find significant influence in literature and art.

Memory, nostalgia, grief and anger were central, for better and worse, to Levine’s narrative approach. Most often his characters live in all three spaces of time across a poem. People and places that no longer exist are brought back to life in the present, and their dreams are projected onto the future, or up against the lack of a discernible future.

His best poems often emphasize tension between visual motifs—such as everyday objects, people or well-known places—and the non-visual elements they evoke in the sounds or feelings of a place or time. In “Those Were The Days” he writes about young boys imagining a hearty breakfast served on silver plates on a sunny day, before being dragged back into reality by their mother, without the food, putting on their galoshes and heading off to school in freezing November rain.

In “Salt and Oil” the elements of the poem’s title become opposing symbols for capturing the “unwritten biography of your city … There is no/ photograph, no mystery/ only Salt and Oil/ in the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds./ There is smoke and grease, there is/ the wrist’s exhaustion, there is laughter,/ there is the letter seized in the clock.”

His compassion and humane treatment of his subjects are Levine’s strongest qualities, with his sympathies almost always clearly directed toward the exploited, overworked and weary people of his poems. In the haunting “Detroit, Tomorrow” for instance, Levine describes a mother who contemplates “how she’ll go back to work today” after her only child has been killed (“You and I will see her just before four/ alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box/ of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee, a navel orange secured under her arm …”).

Or in “Among Children,” from a classroom of 4th grade schoolchildren in Flint, Michigan, he considers their fathers working in spark plug factories or water plants, their mothers waiting in old coats, and worries what the future brings (“You can see already how their backs have thickened, how their small hands, soiled by pig iron, leap and stutter even in dreams”).

One could easily list a dozen other poems evoking very human qualities in Levine’s poetry.

However, while his ability to movingly render the lives of “everyday people” and the grinding nature of work is admirable, those of his poems that move onto political and historical terrain point to some of Levine’s weaknesses. Here a tendency toward pessimism and resignation emerges most clearly.

Some of his most well-known poems—“They Feed They Lion” and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” about racial tensions and the 1967 Detroit Riots, or “Francisco, I’ll Bring You Red Carnations” about events in the Spanish Civil War—are among his least effective.

Some of this can be explained in Levine’s world outlook. Throughout most of his life he identified himself as an anarchist. He dedicates numerous poems and essays to vignettes and to anarchist figures of the Spanish Civil War—a struggle he considered the most important of the 20th century. Many of these are captured in The Names of the Lost and in a chapter of his autobiography (“The Holy Cities”).

The themes of the more “political poems”—heroic individualism, defiance in the face of long odds, idealist notions of a better world—are generally passive and even demoralized. They lack a conception of the material and social basis of the revolutionary struggle. The poem “To Cipriano, In The Wind” is an apt illustration. Cipriano is the name of the Italian dry cleaner who inspired Levine’s turn toward anarchism as a youth. The poem is a discouraged longing for that particular idealism as it fades away in old age. Another poem, “The Communist Party,” about a CP meeting in Detroit in the late 1940s, illustrates a certain lack of seriousness with which he approached questions of history.

“Were we simply idealists?
What I’m certain of is something essential
was missing from our lives, and it wasn’t
in that sad little clubhouse for college kids,
it wasn’t in the vague talk, the awful words
that spun their own monotonous music:
“proletariat,” “bourgeoisie ,” “Trotskyist.

There is an underlying element of retreat and defeat—of an individual “screaming in the wind”—in many of Levine’s poems, even in some of the warmer compositions. In a Paris Review interview towards the end of his life he stated as much, despite his hatred of imperialist oppression. “Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire,” he said, “subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; it finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do?”

Large historical issues of the 20th century—the significance of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent betrayals of Stalinism, the global crisis of capitalism, the transformation of the trade unions into adjuncts of big business and the capitalist state, the dead-end of nationalism—would be difficult to navigate for even the sharpest of artists. Levine’s anarchism left him virtually powerless to bring these issues to life in his poetry.

His focus on the details of life in and around working class neighborhoods led one cultural critic to dub Levine the “large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” This description is somewhat misleading, however. It is indisputable that over the course of a lifetime Levine captured the episodes, dreams, daily routines, tragedies, disputes and complex interactions of working class lives in moving fashion. But his overall outlook is often shrouded by the view that life will never get any better. He is less of a fighter and optimist than Whitman, but Levine was no less sympathetic to his subjects than that poetic giant who preceded him by more than a century. He should be read and remembered for trying to give voice to the largely “voiceless” in industrial America.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/05/phil-m05.html

Ten Years After Hunter S. Thompson’s Death, the Debate Over Suicide Rages On

ten-years-after-hunter-s-thompsons-death-the-debate-over-suicide-rages-on-220-1424463839-crop_lede

February 20, 2015

Today, February 20, marks the tenth anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson killing himself with a .45-caliber handgun in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Since his suicide, the right-to-die movement has gained a stronger foothold in American consciousness—even if the country is just as divided as ever on whether doctors should be assisting patients in ending their own lives.

“Poling has always shown a majority of people believing that someone has a moral right to commit suicide under some circumstances, but that majority has been increasing over time,” says Matthew Wynia, Director of Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Wynia believes a chief factor in that change has been “more and more people say they’ve given a good deal of thought on this issue. And the more people tend to give thought to this issue, the more likely they are to say they are in favor of people having a moral right to commit suicide, under certain circumstances.”

The sticking point is what constitutes a justifiable reason to kill yourself or have a doctor do so for you. In Thompson’s case, he was suffering from intense physical discomfortdue to a back injury, broken leg, hip replacement surgery, and a lung infection. But his widow, Anita, says that while the injuries were significant, they did not justify his suicide.

“His pain was unbearable at times, but was by no means terminal,” Anita tells me via email. “That is the rub. If it were a terminal illness, the horrible aftermath would have been different for me and his loved ones. None of us minded caring for him.”

A mix of popular culture and legislative initiatives have shifted the terrain since then. When Thompson made his big exit in 2005, Jack Kevorkian was still incarcerated for helping his patients shuffle off their mortal coil. He was released in 2007, and shortly before his death a few years later, HBO chronicled his struggles to change public opinion of physician-assisted suicide in the film You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino.

Last year, suicide seemed to cross a threshold of legitimacy in America. When terminally ill 29-year-old Brittany Maynard appeared on the cover of People magazine next to the headline, “My Decision to Die,” the issue was thrust into the faces of every supermarket shopper in the US. Earlier in the year, the season finale of Girls closed with one of the main characters agreeing to help her geriatric employer end her life, only to have the woman back out after swallowing a fistfull of pills, shouting, “I don’t want to die!”

After the self-inflicted death of Robin Williams last summer, those with strong moral opposition to suicide used the tragedy as an illustration of how much taking your life hurts those around you. “I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves,” Henry Rollins wrote in an editorial for LA Weekly. “I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be—choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life… I no longer take this person seriously. Their life wasn’t cut short—it was purposely abandoned.”

A decade earlier, Rollins’s comments might have gone unnoticed. As might have Fox News’ Shepard Smith when he referred to Williams as “such a coward” for abandoning his children. Of course, both received a good lashing in the court of public opinion for being so dismissive toward someone suffering from depression. “To the core of my being, I regret it,” Smith apologized in a statement. Rollins followed suit, saying, “I should have known better, but I obviously did not.”

A 2013 Pew Research Poll found that 38 percent of Americans believed that a person has a moral right to commit suicide if “living has become a burden.” But if the person is described as “suffering great pain and have no hope of improvement,” the number increased to 62 percent, a seven-point jump from the way Americans felt about the issue in 1990.

“Psychic suffering is as important as physical suffering when determining if a person should have help to die.”

Still, only 47 percent of Americans in a Pew poll last October said that a doctor should be allowed to facilitate a suicide, barely different from numbers at the time of Thompson’s death. Wynia believes an enduring factor here this is the public’s fear that assisted suicide will be applied as a cost-cutting measure to an already overburdened healthcare system.

“There is worry that insurance companies will cover medication to end your life, but they won’t cover treatments that allow you to extend your life,” he says. “And then the family is stuck with either ponying up the money to extend that person’s life, or they could commit suicide. That puts a lot of pressure on both the family and the individual. Also, there is the issue of the doctor being seen as a double agent who isn’t solely looking out for their best interest.”

As with abortion before Roe v. Wade, when determined citizens are denied medical assistance and left to their own devices, the results can sometimes be disastrous. “There are people who try and fail at suicide, and sometimes they end up in much worse positions than they started,” Wynia adds. “I’ve cared for someone who tried to commit suicide by drinking Drano; that’s a good way to burn out your entire esophagus, and if you survive it, you’re in very bad shape afterward.”

A 2014 Gallup poll showed considerably more support for doctors’ involvement in ending a patient’s life. When asked if physicians should be allowed to “legally end a patient’s life by some painless means,” 69 percent of Americans said they were in favor of such a procedure. But when the question is whether physicians should be able to “assist the patient to commit suicide,” support dropped to 58 percent. This has lead many advocacy groups to adopt the term “aid in dying” as opposed to “assisted suicide.”

A statement on the Compassion and Choices website states: “It is wrong to equate ‘suicide,’ which about 30,000 Americans, suffering from mental illness, tragically resort to each year, with the death-with-dignity option utilized by only 160 terminally ill, but mentally competent, patients in Oregon and Washington last year.”

According to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act—which permitted Brittany Maynard to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs from her physician—a patient must be over 18 years old, of sound mind, and diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live in order to be given life-ending care. Currently, four other states have bills similar to Oregon’s, while 39 states have laws banning physician-assisted suicide. Earlier this month, legislators in Colorado attempted to pass their own version of an assisted suicide bill, but it failed in committee.

In 1995, Australia’s Northern Territory briefly legalized euthanasia through the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Dr. Philip Nitschke was the first doctor to administer a voluntary lethal injection to a patient, followed by three more before the law was overturned by the Australian Parliament in 1997. Nitschke retired from medicine that year and began working to educate the public on how to administer their own life-ending procedure without medical supervision or assistance. Last summer, the Australian Medical Board suspended his medical registration, a decision which he is appealing.

Nitschke says two states in Australia currently offer life in prison as a penalty for anyone assisting in another’s suicide, and that he’s been contacted by the British police, who say he may be in violation of the United Kingdom’s assisted suicide laws for hosting workshops educating Brits on how to kill themselves. Unlike more moderate groups like Compassion and Choices, Nitschke’s Exit International doesn’t shy away from words like “suicide,” and feels that the right to die should be expanded dramatically.

A proponent of both left-wing social justice and right-wing rhetoric about personal freedoms, Thompson had very strong feelings about the role of government in our daily lives, particularly when it came to what we were allowed to do with our own bodies.

Laws in most countries that allow physician-assisted suicide under specific circumstances do not consider psychological ailments like depression a justifiable reason for ending your life. Nitschke sees a circular hypocrisy in this, arguing that everyone should be granted the right to end their own life regardless of health, and that those suffering a mental illness are still able to give informed consent.

“Psychic suffering is as important as physical suffering when determining if a person should have help to die,” Nitschke tells me. “The prevailing medical board [in Australia] views almost any psychiatric illness as a reason why one cannot give consent—but the catch-22 is that anyone contemplating suicide, for whatever reason, must be suffering psychiatric illness.”

These days, Nitschke is avoiding criminal prosecution by merely providing information on effective suicide techniques. So long as he doesn’t physically administer a death agent to anyone—the crime that resulted in Kevorkian being hit with a second-degree murder conviction and eight years in prison—he’ll most likely steer clear of jail time.

Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia machine. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“I think our society is very confused about liberty,” Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, wrote in 2012. “I don’t think it makes sense to force women to carry children they don’t want, and I don’t think it makes sense to prevent people who wish to die from doing so. Just as my marrying my husband doesn’t damage the marriages of straight people, so people who end their lives with assistance do not threaten the lives or decisions of other people.”

While support for laws banning physician-assisted suicide typically come from conservative religious groups and those mistrustful of government-run healthcare, the idea that the government has a role in deciding your end of life care is rooted in a left-leaning philosophy.

“The theory used to be that the state has an interest in the health and wellbeing of its citizens,” acccording to Wynia, “and therefore you as a citizen do not have a right to kill yourself, because you are, in essence, a property of the state.”

This conflicted greatly with the philosophy of Hunter S. Thompson. A proponent of both left-wing social justice and right-wing rhetoric about personal freedoms, Thompson had very strong feelings about the role of government in our daily lives, particularly when it came to what we were allowed to do with our own bodies.

“He once said to me, ‘I’d feel real trapped in this life, Ralph, if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment,'” remembered friend and longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman in a recent interview with Esquire.

Sitting in a New York hotel room while writing the introduction to The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his essays and journalism published in 1979, Thompson described feeling an existential angst when reflecting on the body of work. “I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone… and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out into the air and across Fifth Avenue… The only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live—(13 years longer, in fact).”

Thompson’s widow, Anita, was on the phone with her husband when he took his life. To this day, she feels that the situation was far from hopeless, that his injuries weren’t beyond repair, and that he still had plenty of years left in him.

“He was about to have back surgery again, which meant that the problem would soon be fixed and he could commence his recovery,” she tells me. “My belief is that supporting somebody’s ‘freedom’ to commit suicide because he or she is in some pain or depressed is much different than a chronic or terminal illness. Although I’ve healed from the tragedy, the fact that his personal decision was actually hurried by a series of events and people that later admitted they supported his decision, still haunts me today.”

In September 2005, Rolling Stone published what has come to be known as Hunter Thompson’s suicide note. Despite being written four days beforehand, the brief message does contain the weighty despair of a man unable to inspire in himself the will to go on:

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax—This won’t hurt.

Seeing as he lived his life as an undefinable political anomaly—he was an icon of the the hedonism of the 60s and 70s, and also a card-carrying member of the NRA—it’s only fitting that Thompson’s exit from this earth was through the most divisive and controversial doorway possible.

“The fundamental beliefs that underlie our nation are sometimes in conflict with each other—and these issues get at some of the basic tensions in what we value as Americans,” says Wynia. “We value our individual liberties, we value our right to make decisions for ourselves, but we also are a religious community, and we are mistrustful of authority. When you talk about giving the power to doctors or anyone else to help you commit suicide, it makes a lot of people nervous. Even though we also have a libertarian streak that believes, ‘I should be allowed to do this, and I should be allowed to ask my doctor to help me.’ I think this is bound to be a contentious issue for some time to come.”

If you are feeling hopeless of suicidal, there are people you can talk to. Please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter.

 

http://www.vice.com/read/ten-years-after-hunter-s-thompsons-death-the-debate-over-suicide-rages-on-220?utm_source=vicefbus

The Island of Knowledge: How to Live with Mystery in a Culture Obsessed with Certainty and Definitive Answers

by

“We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”

“Our human definition of ‘everything’ gives us, at best, a tiny penlight to help us with our wanderings,” Benjamen Walker offered in an episode of his excellent Theory of Everythingpodcast as we shared a conversation about illumination and the art of discovery. Thirty years earlier, Carl Sagan had captured this idea in his masterwork Varieties of Scientific Experience, where he asserted: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” This must be what Rilke, too, had at heart when he exhorted us to live the questions. And yet if there is one common denominator across the entire history of human culture, it is the insatiable hunger to know the unknowable — that is, to know everything, and to know it with certainty, which is itself the enemy of the human spirit.

The perplexities and paradoxes of that quintessential human longing, and how the progress of modern science has compounded it, is what astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser examines in The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (public library).

Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown.

Artwork from ‘Fail Safe,’ Debbie Millman’s illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.

Gleiser begins by posing the question of whether there are fundamental limits to how much of the universe and our place in it science can explain, with a concrete focus on physical reality. Echoing cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s eye-opening exploration of why our minds miss the vast majority of what is going on around us, he writes:

What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that bridges Philip K. Dick’s formulation of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” with Richard Feynman’s iconicmonologue on knowledge and mystery, Gleiser adds:

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.

[…]

The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.

Gleiser notes that while modern science has made tremendous strides in illuminating the neuronal infrastructure of the brain, it has in the process reduced the mind to mere chemical operations, not only failing to advance but perhaps even impoverishing our understanding and sense of being. He admonishes against mistaking measurement for meaning:

There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.

[…]

Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.

[…]

But the essence of empirical science is that Nature always has the last word… It then follows that if we only have limited access to Nature through our tools and, more subtly, through our restricted methods of investigation, our knowledge of the natural world is necessarily limited.

And yet even though much of the world remains invisible to us at any given moment, Gleiser argues that this is what the human imagination thrives on. At the same time, however, the very instruments that we create with this restless imagination begin to shape what is perceivable, and thus what is known, marking “reality” a Rube Goldberg machine of detectable measurements. Gleiser writes:

If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.

[…]

Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing… The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another.

[…]

As long as technology advances — and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around — we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.

Artwork by Marian Bantjes from ‘Beyond Pretty Pictures.’ Click image for more.

To illustrate this notion, Gleiser constructs the metaphor after which his book is titled — he paints knowledge as an island surrounded by the vast ocean of the unknown; as we learn more, the island expands into the ocean, its coastline marking the ever-shifting boundary between the known and the unknown. Paraphrasing the Socratic paradox, Gleiser writes:

Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

Echoing Ray Bradbury’s poetic conviction that it’s part of human nature “to start with romance and build to a reality,” Gleiser adds:

This realization should open doors, not close them, since it makes the search for knowledge an open-ended pursuit, an endless romance with the unknown.

Gleiser admonishes against the limiting notion that we only have two options — staunch scientism, with its blind faith in science’s ability to permanently solve the mysteries of the unknown, and religious obscurantism, with its superstitious avoidance of inconvenient facts. Instead, he offers a third approach “based on how an understanding of the way we probe reality can be a source of endless inspiration without the need for setting final goals or promises of eternal truths.” In an assertion that invokes Sagan’s famous case for the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Gleiser writes:

This unsettled existence is the very blood of science. Science needs to fail to move forward. Theories need to break down; their limits need to be exposed. As tools probe deeper into Nature, they expose the cracks of old theories and allow new ones to emerge. However, we should not be fooled into believing that this process has an end.

I recently tussled with another facet of this issue — the umwelt of the unanswerable — in contemplating the future of machines that think for John Brockman’s annual Edge question. But what makes Gleiser’s point particularly gladdening is the underlying implication that despite its pursuit of answers, science thrives on uncertainty and thus necessitates an element of unflinching faith — faith in the process of the pursuit rather than the outcome, but faith nonetheless. And while the difference between science and religion might be, as Krista Tippett elegantly offered, in the questions they ask rather than the answers they offer, Gleiser suggests that both the fault line and the common ground between the two is a matter of how each relates to mystery:

Can we make sense of the world without belief? This is a central question behind the science and faith dichotomy… Religious myths attempt to explain the unknown with the unknowable while science attempts to explain the unknown with the knowable.

[…]

Both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits, as in “gravity works the same way across the entire Universe,” or “the theory of evolution by natural selection applies to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial ones.” These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Citing Newton and Einstein as prime examples of scientists who used wholly intuitive faith to advance their empirical and theoretical breakthroughs — one by extrapolating from his gravitational findings to assert that the universe is infinite and the other by inventing the notion of a “universal constant” to discuss the finitude of space — Gleiser adds:

To go beyond the known, both Newton and Einstein had to take intellectual risks, making assumptions based on intuition and personal prejudice. That they did so, knowing that their speculative theories were necessarily faulty and limited, illustrates the power of belief in the creative process of two of the greatest scientists of all time. To a greater or lesser extent, every person engaged in the advancement of knowledge does the same.

The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality — Gleiser goes on to explore how conceptual leaps and bounds have shaped our search for meaning, what quantum mechanics reveal about the nature of physical reality, and how the evolution of machines and mathematics might affect our ideas about the limits of knowledge.

For a fine complement, see Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning and astrophysicist Janna Levin onwhether the universe is infinite or finite, then treat yourself to Gleiser’s magnificent conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson — herself a thinker of perceptive and nuanced insight on mystery — on the existentially indispensable On Being:

GLEISER: To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake… There is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.

[…]

ROBINSON: One of the things that is fascinating is that we don’t know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating … in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again.

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/02/02/the-island-of-knowledge-marcelo-glasier/?mc_cid=9300b7fb0a&mc_eid=e0931c81b0