Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
Sunday, March 20, 2011
THURSDAY marked the 355th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.
Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza’s life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.
The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.
The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.
Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding.
Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.
Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.
Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.
It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.
Spinoza’s attempt to deduce everything from first principles — that is, without reliance on empirical observation — can strike us today as quixotically impractical, and yet his project of radical rationality had concrete consequences. His writings, banned and condemned by greater Christian Europe, but continuously read and discussed, played a role in the audacious experiment in rational government that gave birth to this country.
The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke’s library not only included all of Spinoza’s important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned.
It’s worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state’s power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.
Locke’s claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza’s. He was firm in defending Christianity’s revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza’s universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson’s view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza’s collected works were also in Jefferson’s library, so Spinoza’s impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)
If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired “life, liberty and pursuit of property”), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.
Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.
Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Words: Mark 'Lenny' Linehan
The door of the penthouse suite in The "U2" Clarence opens and the 'uh-huh-shake-baby' strains of Elvis Presley come pouring out into the corridor. I picture for a second the groupies inside being instructed on how to correctly traverse a drainpipe down to the ground floor. Inside half eaten plates of room service sandwiches and chips are covering the cheap MDF sideboard. For a hotel owned by the "biggest" rock band in the world, it more resembles a motorway travelodge. A man and a woman are sitting talking to each other, both are wearing regulation rock star dark sunglasses and motion a wave in my direction. He looks suspiciously like the guy who accosted me earlier in the waiting room for cigarettes. It looks like he found one. I squint and realise it's bowl headed Irish singer-songwriter, Fionn Regan. "Rock and roll," I think to myself as I'm ushered out to the balcony, and introduced to Mr and Mrs Nice.
Okay, so they're not a couple, but they're very close. Looking like a mischievous teenager on the piss with his "cool" dad, Howard Marks and Rhys Ifans are sitting outside on the spatial surroundings of the balcony of The Clarence hotel. At his height in the mid 1980s Howard Marks had forty-three aliases, eighty-nine phone lines, and twenty five companies trading worldwide. He was smuggling consignments of up to thirty tons of hashish from Pakistan and Thailand to America and Canada and had contact with organisations as diverse as the CIA, MI6, the IRA, and the Mafia (apparently they're the only ones who still send the odd Christmas card). He once stood for Parliament in 1997 on the single issue of the legalisation of cannabis and gained 1.5% of the vote. Presumably, this would have been higher if only his demographic wasn't pinned to the sofa with the munchies. He is touted as a cultural icon, "I know for a fact The Beatles smoked some of my dope…I'm f*cking certain." And back home in Wales is fast becoming a rebel folk hero."I love what they did here. The ceiling is like a real sky. Jesus, that must have been expensive!" Ifans sweeps his arms out and laughs. He cuddles a glass of white wine as we talk. He is bubbly and sharp tongued, probably like the vino. Marks opts for the sophisticated red and puffs on a rolled up cigarette (or is it?) I have to double check the time. It's early afternoon. Both are probably still on it from the night before. They have known each other for about twenty years when Ifans wrote to Marks when he was hold up in Terre Haute prison. He served seven years of a twenty five term in one of America's most notorious jails. "He wrote to me with sympathy, sincerity and wisdom. It wasn't until about '96 that I met him at a Super Furry Animals concert. He asked me to sign some cigarette papers." It was here that the two made a gentleman's agreement. If there was ever a film made of Mark's life, Ifans would play him.
That agreement was upheld and this week sees the release of the film version of Mark's hugely successful autobiographical tome, Mr Nice. The movie of the same name tries to capture an essence of his rollercoaster life, but obviously a lot had to be lost in translation, "In the movie they rolled (excuses pun) a few of my ex-wives into one. A lot had to be cut from the book, or the movie would have been a week long." The movie focuses mainly on his relationship with IRA man Jim McCann played by the excellent David Thewlis, his links with Mr Khan (Omid Djalilli) in Pakistan, and his relationship with Judy Marks (Chloe Sevigny), ex-wife and mother of three of his children. It travails his time from being an Oxford student where he earned a degree in nuclear physics and post graduate qualifications in philosophy through to entering the drug trade and his time in prison.
"There's a poetic nostalgia to the movie about how things have changed so much. There was no mobile phones. If I had one I would have needed a suitcase to carry it around in." It is hard to imagine an individual as charming as Marks existing in the drug world today. He doesn't have the unpredictable violent demeanor one would associate with a man in the drug smuggling trade for 25 years. For all his charm there is a steely determination and hardness. Outside in the cold wind he has only a short sleeve shirt on. When he talks, he is methodical and calculated, and his intelligence is tunnelled through a wise Welsh Burr and soft eyes, like Richard Burton if he was in The Rolling Stones. Ifans is far more animated and imparts his knowledge like a philosophical drunk pausing between thoughts and grinning, "This is not a drugs movie. It's not Cheech and Chong. It's an odyssey of a movie, the story arc we are rewarded with in this film…(pause) erm, well, that's The Bible right there (looks at Marks and starts giggling) Not that you're Jesus! (Ifans makes the Crucifixion pose) How would you skin-up like this, ha, ha, ha!?"
If anything the lads had a great time making the movie, and the press junket seems to be a riot. Finally, I ask Marks how, for someone who smoked Marijuana all his life and the known effects it has on the memory, how did he remember anything? "The DEA recorded everything so they were like my diary. It was all there I just had to fill in the details without it I wouldn't have been able to f*cking remember anything."
So, without even realising it, those who wanted him imprisoned were helping him all along. It is the law that are the subject of his next project. It's a crime fiction novel based on drugs and corrupt cops in Cardiff in the mid-1970s is due out next March.
Turned out Nice again. For one man it certainly has.