11 July 2009

Nanny-Pentagon: Non-Smoking Military

According to FoxNews, a report has come out of the Pentagon which urges Defense Secretary Gates to end tobacco use in the military. "Any tobacco use while in uniform should be prohibited" is the recommendation of the report. It all comes down to cost, though, as the report claims that the Pentagon and the Veteran's Administration lose or spend about $7 billion on tobacco related issues (lost time, health care, etc.). Where I think the report really launches into loony land is when it claims to want "new officers and enlisted personnel to be tobacco-free". What bizarro world do these report preparers live in?

It seems that at some point the Pentagon - and by larger implication the federal government - would figure out that they deal primarily with issues involving human beings. I know that sounds ludicrously obvious, but it is a point which needs to be made. So often, dollar costs, time costs, this cost and that cost are thrown on "issues" in order to give them scope and scale. Sooner or later, I suspect a few token examples of tobacco use "ruining the life" of some poor soldier will be held up as the example of why this ban must be put in place; the Pentagon simply must save our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from themselves.

It is, I think, a reflection of the larger debate about who will pay for health insurance for every living soul in the country (regardless of any and all particularities between them). One size must fit all, it seems. So much money can be saved; so we've been told. I'm sure there are shocking statistics about amount of work time lost due to some people's inability to find "affordable health care". And the individual cases of how the health care system has "ruined a life" have been put forward. So the federal government must save its poor subjects from themselves.

But this denies the humanity inherent within each one of us - though that human nature will cause us to do things which are damaging to ourselves. I speak from experience; I was one of those soon-to-be-banned tobacco users while I was in the military. Many a long duty was broken by having a smoke. Many a long, intense flight was "supported" by a bit of chewing tobacco. And then I quit both. I didn't need nor want the government which I served to tell me that I couldn't smoke or chew - things which are not prohibited to any American over 18. In fact, I would have deeply resented it.

But I suppose this drive for a tobacco purging is an extension of various governmental bodies getting into matter which they should never even consider touching. The executive as auto maker. The Pentagon as health cop. The Federal Reserve as economic czar. The EPA as CO2 tax collector and Al Gore surrogate. Schools as baby-sitting facilities. Universities as sports venues. News reporters as infomercial dispensers. It's a very, very mixed up culture that we've immersed ourselves in. If we can pull out of the dive, perhaps there will still be enough liberty out there so that our fighting men and women can still have a smoke, if they choose.

07 July 2009

Final Words in Crime and Punishment – Gradual Progression

In the final paragraph of the second chapter of the Epilogue in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the word gradual is used twice as well as the phrase slow progress. This is in stark contrast with the character of Raskolnikov throughout the rest of the novel. And as these instances occur at the end of the novel, as that parting shot, within them lies a lesson, I think.

Raskolnikov has, right up until the very point in the novel where he picked up the Bible of his own accord and began to read, attempted to gain through immediate exercise of some sort. He believed that killing the pawnbroker would allow him to achieve untold ends – ends which it appears he had not really considered or which the narrator does not see fit to inform the reader of. Raskolnikov thought that the act and his audacity of positively undertaking it would propel him forward and that in an instant. What follows his act concerns five parts of the novel – his unwillingness to realize that he has not been propelled forward instantly through his act, his crime. His desire of instantaneously propelling himself forward has turned out to be a lie.

His attempts after the double murder reflect his desire for instantaneous results; he wishes to reach some sort of conclusion to his ordeal, as long as he is not called to task for his actions (and indeed for his thoughts, his delusions concerning his own station in life). His encounters with Zametov, Zosimov, and most importantly Porfiry, all either come from or contain within them some attempt to satisfactorily and instantaneously conclude the episode of the double murder.

Yet Porfiry foreshadows the final paragraph of the novel when he informs Raskolnikov (on two different occasions) that over the course of time, this murderer will turn himself in. That Porfiry has moved on before Raskolnikov has volunteered his confession furthers the proof of the inevitability of the confession – Porfiry does not need to be present when proved correct, the fact remains that he is. Gradually, over time, he is proved right.

As a theme which carries over to today, I think it is clear that the message of “gradual renewal”, “gradual regeneration”, and “slow progress from one world to another” is one which must be heard (465). We as a society are bombarded by things which we are told are “crises”. We are then told that immediate actions must be taken, lest what is already in a state of “crisis” become something beyond crisis – whatever that might be. But if we lift the panic-inducing diction of propaganda, we might ask just where the quick fix might land us. Might the quick fix just land us in some gaol? Might we learn that we have lost our national soul to the quick fix? Have we already?

Work Cited – Dostoevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1964.

Understanding the Joy of Outrage

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Svidrigaylov makes an interesting comment regarding personal outrage. His deceased wife, Marfa Petrovna, seems to have felt most alive when she felt outraged about something. He recognizes, at the beginning of Chapter 1 of Part Four "that it sometimes happens that women are highly gratified at being outraged, in spite of their apparent indignation. It happens with everybody: mankind in general loves to be affronted". And while Svidrigaylov specifically attaches this talent to women, he clearly understands that this need for personal outrage is actually a form of personal "entertainment".

We can see this sort of thing today reflected in media coverage of our culture. I hesitate to call any of it "news" because, as Svidrigaylov notes, it is designed more for our "entertainment". Much news coverage is designed specifically to outrage certain groups of watchers. The outlets of this entertainment want the audience to ask, "How could he/she? How dare he/she?" This sort of emotional reaction is quite easily stirred up given the vast number of celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and political-celebrities which inhabit the culture. One may even consider the possibility that this shift in focus onto personalities is intentional. By focusing on other individual personalities, the propagators of outrage "entertainment" are assured of a steady stream of subjects. Just when one story line has run its course, another human failing occurs - as it surely must - and the cycle can continue. Endlessly.

But what then are the ingestors of this "entertainment" not focusing on, not thinking about? Indeed, are they capable of serious critical thinking? Or is it just too comfortable, too safe, to simply enjoy himself while being "outraged" and the world outside?

06 July 2009

Raskolnikov’s “Exceptional” Man

As I hit the half-way point in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of the central ideas has finally come out in the novel. This is the third time that I’ve read it, so it was more of a matter of my remembering where the part occurred rather than knowing that it occurred. In the fifth chapter of Part Three, Raskolnikov explains an essay he wrote in which he explains two classifications of people. The great mass of humanity is made up of normal people who must follow the rules of society. But, Raskolikov suggests, there are a very few who are “extraordinary” and indeed must break social customs in order to advance society – despite the best attempts of the mass of humanity to keep life regular and unmoving, or to put it another way, to conserve social order.

The problem with Raskolikov’s thesis of the rare, “exceptional” man, which suggests the idea of the ubermensch, is that there is no real criterion with which to designate such a person. Before the point of action, it may be simply a feeling that there is something special, something unprecedented about one’s own thoughts and ideas. After all, if a person comes up with something new in his head and as long as he stays in that environment – in his head – does he ever really know if his idea, his motive, his drive is unique? It is easy to believe one’s self special if one’s self is the only person one ever puts one’s self up to for inspection.

Raskolnikov, in the days and weeks prior to the double murder, does just this. He boxes himself up in his room, neglects all others and even himself, and is concerned only with his own thoughts. Surely he can and has convinced himself that he is an “exceptional” man who is capable of murder and theft. All he must do is complete the task and advance himself. Only after the deed does he understand that he is not “exceptional” at all. He is all too human.
What I think that Raskolnikov has tried to lose through his logic of the “exceptional” man is the practical fact that man needs to have something, some force, over him in order to prevent radical, or even immoderate, digressions from social morality. Raskolinov attempts to make his case for the “exceptional” man quite forceful by taking it to the extreme case that such men may logically be excused from committing murder so long as it advances their agenda. If murder is permissible for such men, then everything else is as well.

But Raskolnikov finds out early in the novel that there is some force greater than the “exceptional” man – if there is such a thing. Later in the novel, he will find a name for it; he will rediscover it through Sonya. For the reader, though, his is a cautionary tale. Self-absorption and an inflated sense of self-importance are quite dangerous things. If we but look around, we can see these all around, blown up (figuratively) on big-screen televisions and through the internet; the hyper-celebrity culture icons are not unlike Raskolnikov’s “exceptionals”. The difference is that unlike his supposed reasoning that these men act to advance a culture, there is no such lofty goal for the hyper-celebrity. All is excess and debauchery. And sadly, both they are we are culturally the lesser for it.