~ Sunday, December 25, 2005 ~
~ Thursday, December 22, 2005 ~
What's more important, doing the right thing or making the world better?
You'd like to never have to choose between the two, wouldn't you? But has the path to world-improvement ever complied with The Rules? Half the time the rules are wrong, and so they get in the way of doing what needs to be done for the Good of All Humanity. Think of unions fighting for laborers' rights, or Rosa Parks, or laws condoning slavery. Or heck, think of the Maccabees fighting the Seleucids (thank you, Eric). Assuming the Maccabees were right, you know.
But the other half of the time, the would-be-reformers think they have a really hot idea and it isn't until much later that their grandchildren realize how wrong they were, and that maybe they should have listened to the law all along instead of contorting it to fit their purposes. Think of the Salem Witch Trials, or of Our Friend Dubya, or think of the eugenics movement, which is the topic of the paper I'm taking a break from writing just now.* The eugenics movement, for those of you who haven't heard, started around 1890 with people here in the U.S. trying to keep survival-of-the-fittest-style evolution alive by mating the best people with each other. Later, they moved onto sterilising the worst people, but the movement found its ultimate expression in Nazi Germany with the Elimination of the Undesirables through mass murder.
The third half of the time, the law is right, AND breaking the law is the only way to help things get better, and that's the case that pulls the hardest. The first example I can find is that of using animals to do medical research so that maybe someday people won't die of terrible diseases. It's not illegal to give cancer to a rat, but it's still morally bad...or at least morally undesirable? The situation gets a lot sharper if you have to do all your testing on human subjects, so if you hate animals and want them to die anyway, just imagine the rats as sweet adorable little 6-year-old children with blonde hair and big blue eyes (thank you, Mr. Bobonich), and then maybe you too will feel the agony of the situation. Or another example might come from war. Nothing but being totally sacked by our military will stop that country's evil dictator from committing daily atrocities, so if we want to make the world better, we have to go to war against him, but come on, is it ever really Right to send our people to kill their people? Or how about this one, from Jarah: it's always wrong to torture someone, right? But what do you do if there's someone who knows where a bomb is hidden, and the only way to get them to talk in time enough to save the hundreds of people who will otherwise be killed when the bomb goes off is to torture this person into telling us the information? You have to imagine, I guess, that it's not due to a lack of creativity on our parts that we can't think of anything else to do other than test it on a human/declare war/torture the potential informant, but rather that this morally bad thing is the Only Hope to get out of this really terrible situation. And let's also say that you don't even know for sure whether doing this morally bad thing will fix the problem. Which would you rather do? The right thing, or the thing that could make the world better?
Professor Panache, who taught my British Moral Philosophy class, once sighed deeply and said that there are basically two kinds of people, the ones who say our main directive in life is to do the right thing and the ones who say our life's purpose is to make the world better. When he said that, I was surprised to find how instantly I knew that I'm a member of the first camp...I usually spend years wavering back and forth on questions like this before I can decide, but not in this case. Intuitively, I consider it to always be more important to do what's right. Anything else feels...selfish. Who am I to put aside the moral law of human interaction for the sake of my own dreams of how good things could be if only I could temporarily shove this pesky rule out of the way? Just because I want something doesn't mean I get to trample you to get it...even if what I want is something that will benefit many others. If the only way to get the guy to talk is to torture him, I'd let the bomb go off and let the people die. Or maybe I'm just morally squeamish that way.
So where do you stand, dear reader? Is it more important to do the right thing or to make the world better? I would love to have a response from every single person who reads this post. It can be your Hannukah present to me. :)
Speaking of Hannukah, I'm having my own little mini-Hannukah miracle here...as I type this, the two candles that I lit tonight are still flickering two hours past their 3-hour life expectancy. Most of the wax has melted away, and they've been in that just-about-to-go-out state (nothing left but tiny pieces of wick and small blue glows) for the past hour or so.
*Actually, the paper's about the Human Genome Project, and whether or not it's just another expression of the eugenicist agenda, but the work I've been doing for this paper has been inspiring me to think about broader topics.
~ prattled by Miriam at 10:32 p.m. [+]
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~ Tuesday, December 20, 2005 ~
Let me begin by saying that I hate cockroaches. I hate them so much that even though I refuse to squash insects and spiders, I make exceptions for cockroaches. It began when I lived on the upper west side on a first-floor apartment, and had fairly frequent encounters with them. I'd be doing work in my room or making myself dinner in the kitchen or shuffling into the bathroom in the morning and there on the floor would be this shiny cockroach sitting there as if it owned the place. First I'd try to take them outside by coaxing them onto a folded sheet of paper and carrying the paper outside and shaking the cockroach off, but the cockroaches would spurn my efforts to be merciful. Once, I was trying to catch and take outside a cockroach I'd found in the entryway when I walked inside. When I tried to maneuver it into my makeshift paper trap, it ran into the coat closet. I opened the closet and it scuttled deeper inside into a dark shadowy corner, behind the empty cardboard boxes we inexplicably stored there. I flushed it out and it vanished. Where was it? I know I saw it leave the closet, but where could it have gone? The apartment wasn't that big.... I hesitantly decided it must have left through the front door I had forgotten to close, and made a cursory check in the outer hall. No cockroach. I gave up and closed the front door, only to find that it had been quietly hiding in the space between the open door and the floor. How do they do it? It's as if they know they're driving you mad, and they enjoy it! One evening, when I found one on the kitchen counter, I think I finally snapped. I guided it toward one of the burners of our stove and turned on the gas. Even now, two years later, and living in a place that is blessedly free of the things, there is still a special portion of my brain that I devote exclusively to hating cockroaches.
Now, I'm not usually a gloaty sort of person, but during the strike I really had something to gloat about. I watched lots and lots of people trying patiently, defeatedly, to hail a cab or make a carpool with the requisite four passengers, only to sit in parking lot traffic for hours as they tried to enter or leave Manhattan during the morning and evening sludge hours. Others walked the several miles to and from work in the just-under-freezing temperatures. Meanwhile, all the bicyclists were darting around in the negative spaces, passing the long lines of cars stopped at green lights because they're stuck in gridlock or whooshing by the surly pedestrians. I took the Manhattan Bridge home last night (the Brooklyn Bridge was too congested with pedestrians, and the police were making the bicyclists dismount and walk) and as I approached the bridge's onramp, I paused a moment to take in the sight: dozens of anonymous blinking silhouettes zipping out from the mouth of the bike path into the street where all the cars were stuck immobile, while just as many other blinking silhouettes were extricating themselves effortlessly from the traffic jam as the mouth of the bike path slurped them up.
It gave me the distinct, and shockingly pleasant, impression of being a cockroach. With lights. A smart cockroach with lights whose quick scuttly race will survive long after the humans, with their bloated modes of transportation, will have destroyed themselves.
Current Music: Impossible, TMBG
~ prattled by Miriam at 4:11 p.m. [+]
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~ Thursday, December 15, 2005 ~
The TWU people extended the negotiation deadline till today at midnight, which at this point has come and gone, but still no reports of the threatened walkout of our city's circulatory system. Bit nerve-wracking, all this waiting and wondering if. On the other hand, the weather's been hovering right around freezing these past few days, and it's been sunny and dry, so it's fine for biking, and it's nice to have some more time to zip around on Mercury. Thanks to a new route I discovered from my apartment to the Brooklyn Bridge, I've almost got it to the point where biking and taking the subway to work take the same amount of time. If I could just push my speed up a little bit more, I wouldn't ever have to forego the pleasures of biking for the sake of getting to work closer to on time. Practice practice practice. And maybe a louder bell would help, too...I never thought I'd be all hostile toward people strolling across the bridge, but honestly, must you stand right in the middle of the bike lane to snap a picture of the view? And then refuse to budge when you hear me politely dinging behind you? Your side is right there, just south of the nice bright yellow line, with the universally recognized picture of a pedestrian stenciled at frequent intervals. What, you can't squeeze into the boundaries of the pedestrian lane and still walk seventeen abreast? My heart bleeds for you.
And as long as I'm lamenting over things about which no one else would possibly care, a few months ago I discovered that Duane Reade, the New York drugstore industry's answer to Starbucks, carries packages of peanut-butter-on-cracker sandwiches, bundled into minipacks of four sandwiches each and then sold at the inexplicable price of 99 cents per package of eight minipacks. That's 32 peanut-butter-cracker sandwiches at just over 3 cents each. Cheap, tasty, filling, moderately nutritious, and conveniently wrapped in snack-sized portions. And? They aren't there anymore! My favorite snack, discontinued without a trace.
Maybe I'll organize a protest.
[Update, c. 8 am: They *are* striking. Wish me luck navigating all the oblivious pedestrians on my way to class today.]
~ prattled by Miriam at 1:53 a.m. [+]
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Mayor Bloomberg says...
"The City is prepared for the worst case scenario with a robust contingency plan. A strike would be more than just illegal and inconvenient; it will threaten public safety and severely disrupt our City and its economy. Our contingency plan is designed to move as many people as possible using alternative means of transportation and to make sure that our streets remain passable for emergency vehicles. We will use ferries, carpools, and park and rides to move people around while lane reversals and HOV restrictions will keep traffic moving as best as possible. A strike would be incredibly inconvenient, but if New Yorkers work together and everyone pitches in, we would get through it."
It would indeed be incredibly inconvenient, especially because it comes in the middle of a fierce fierce cold spell, but in spite of that, I have to admit that I get a warm fuzzy feeling from his statement. Darn right it would severely disrupt the city and its economy. The subways are like death; they're the grand equalizer. I'm a student with a dumb retail job and you're a highly paid corporate lawyer and he's a janitor, and we all ride the subway. We all carry our metrocards, we all get antsy when we have to wait on the platform for more than 6 minutes, and we're all familiar with the buskers and beggars who work on our particular route. Don't be fooled by all the taxis clogging the streets; those are for the business people visiting from LA who can't be bothered to figure out The Map or are afraid to walk a few blocks. The subways are the city's circulation system, its lifeblood. Blood stops flowing, the city shuts down. What would we do without our trains? Some of us will walk to school or work, some will carpool, some (the braver ones) will bike, but the rest of us are going to humbly surrender and act like spineless out-of-towners for a day and catch taxis in exchange for submitting to baldfaced robbery. (The taxi fare estimate I heard was up to $10 for travel within a zone of approximately two square miles...the price of speed and central heating!) Apparently the taxicab drivers are drooling like wolves--no, like vultures--over all this fresh meat they'll be able to feast upon in a little less than 24 hours. Well, maybe I would be too.
But to separate for a moment from all the inconvenience, isn't it wonderfully humbling that New York is the kind of city that is so very dependent upon its trains? I mean, SEPTA was talking about severely cutting back on its service if voters didn't vote to give it more money, and people didn't care because SEPTA had screwed them all over so many times that they had become inured to it and just got into their cars without batting an eye. When CalTrain killed their weekend service, did people complain? And BART could shut down and much of the Bay Area might never know. But New York is a different story. People here have different opinions about the subways--some think it stinks, some find it romantic(guess which one is me)--but we all have active relationships with it, nurtured by our bidaily interactions. It's kind of charming to think we're all so inextricably connected to each other, that we all have such immediate common ground with anyone else who lives and works here, through the shared experience of riding the subway every day. Some people achieve a connection to their fellows with faith and a wafer; New Yorkers do it with stress and a metrocard.
As for the practical outcome, if they do strike, I'm hoping to bundle myself up like a sausage and bike to work on Friday, provided it doesn't rain/snow/sleet, as the weather report predicts it might. I figure if the roads are reasonably bikeable, all the other bikers will be out too, and it'll be a party on the Brooklyn Bridge's promenade and all up and down the west side greenway.
Read about Bloomberg's Robust Contingency Plan.
~ prattled by Miriam at 2:19 a.m. [+]
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