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Why People Want to Get Rid of Confederate Statues, as Explained by Plato
There is a philosophical way of looking at the current arguments to remove Confederate statues, and it's one that dates back to Ancient Greece.
A great deal of trouble and debate has recently taken place around monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers in the United States. Both sides have a well-explained position. Supporters of the monuments offer defenses ranging from “Heritage not Hate” down to a frank acceptance, and appreciation, of the avowed white supremacy of the Confederate States of America. Opponents of the monuments cite that exact white supremacy and history of oppression as a reason to demolish the statues.
It has been suggested by prominent figures that the campaign to remove statues because of the sins of history will have no end, with offending images being found everywhere. Today it will be Robert E. Lee, tomorrow Washington, the next day we might find reason to hate Lincoln. To prevent the descent into revisionist madness, we must stop it before it starts and leave them all standing—so the argument goes.
However, there is a philosophical way of looking at the current arguments to remove Confederate statues. It's one that dates back to Ancient Greece and suggests that it is not mere revisionism.
In the classic work The Republic, Plato attempts to describe what justice is through an extended study of the ideal city and how it relates to a just man. While his conclusion is not what interests us here, there is one segment, on the decline of the ideal state into tyranny, that does. Plato did not see utopia as the end of history as we do, but rather as subject to decay and only a momentary thing. Since his city-state started out as perfect, any change is for the worse, but it is the inevitability of change that is relevant to us. He has Socrates explain the nature of the changes to a debate partner in this dialogue:
“The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is the ruin of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law?”
“And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.”
“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”
“And in proportion as riches and rich men are honored in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonored.”
“And what is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected.”
“That is obvious.”
“And so, at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money….
Here, he shows that what is valued in any place inevitably changes over time and that those new values lead to fundamental changes in society. In this case, the increased love of money, and reduced emphasis placed on virtue and vice, leads the aristocratic city-state to become an oligarchic plutocracy. This love of money begets itself, as “what is honored is cultivated.”
This thought is the key to understanding the current debate over Confederate monuments. A statue is an object of art and history, but also of honor. Many names in history have no statues, and the decision to devote resources to producing one means that this person, above all others, is supposed worthy of having a statue. Times, tastes, and values change, and people who were once deemed destined to have a place of honor are sometimes cast aside. With them go their monuments.
American Revolutionaries removing a statue of George III, as depicted by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.
This same principle, “what is honored is cultivated,” is applied in Germany on bans on Nazi imagery. There are no public statues praising Hitler remaining in Berlin, and many sites which were deemed likely to be used as shrines to fascism were demolished or severely altered to prevent that honor from ever materializing. Austria took bold steps this year in the same direction. This same motivation was cited by the University of Texas at Austin in its recent decision to remove its Confederate statues. With university president Greg Fenves saying, “We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus.”
A notable image of regime, or cultural, change is always the toppling of old monuments to ex-leaders, and it happens everywhere. Rarely are such people accused of trying to re-write history. They are more often praised for taking control of their future. The Germans remember the Nazis, and the Ukrainians remember Stalin. They just don’t have so many statues honoring them in parks anymore.
On a more positive note, there are countless examples of people being images of honor in a society to show that they are noteworthy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who founded the March of Dimes, was placed on the dime shortly after his death. Seattle has a statue dedicated to its greatest native guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. Serbia’s greatest scientist, Nikola Tesla, adorns the 100 Dinar note. These great men, seen as worthy of emulation for charity, artistic skill, and scientific achievement, are showcased. The list of similar selections goes on and on—and in the future will grow to include more female icons, another shifting cultural value.
The current movement to dismantle Confederate statues then, from the perspective of Plato, is part of the natural evolution of what is valued in a society. What those values are, and if they are good ones, is another question. What is not questioned is that a society desires and values some things above others and that steps will be taken to promote them. Is rebellion against Lincoln still to be held dear? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is inaccurate to say that people wish to erase disappointing history; Plato would say they seek to promote what they value. A natural, and perhaps inevitable thing.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p>When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told <em><a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">Wired</a></em>. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"</p><p>After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.</p>
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told <em>Wired</em>. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."</p><p>The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.</p>
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL<p>But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as <em>Wired</em> <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/meet-the-ultra-black-vantafish/" target="_blank">notes</a>.</p><p>Other fish—like the <a href="http://onebugaday.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-new-anglerfish-oneirodes-amaokai.html" target="_blank">oneirodes species</a>, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like <em>C. acclinidens</em> only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.</p><p>Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean. </p>
Using machine-learning technology, the genealogy company My Heritage enables users to animate static images of their relatives.
- Deep Nostalgia uses machine learning to animate static images.
- The AI can animate images by "looking" at a single facial image, and the animations include movements such as blinking, smiling and head tilting.
- As deepfake technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are concerned about how bad actors might abuse the technology to manipulate the pubic.
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But that's not to say the animations are perfect. As with most deep-fake technology, there's still an uncanny air to the images, with some of the facial movements appearing slightly unnatural. What's more, Deep Nostalgia is only able to create deepfakes of one person's face from the neck up, so you couldn't use it to animate group photos, or photos of people doing any sort of physical activity.</p>
My Heritage/Deep Nostalgia<p>But for a free deep-fake service, Deep Nostalgia is pretty impressive, especially considering you can use it to create deepfakes of <em>any </em>face, human or not. </p>
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0<p>When scientists and mathematicians use the term <em>Platonic worldview</em>, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in <em>Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives</em> (1979), 39.)</p> <p>Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K2JTGIA?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">semi-religious dream</a>.</p>