Thursday, June 30, 2011

To be a Frenchman abroad is to be miserable; to be an American abroad is to make others miserable

Other quotes from the imminently quotable Ambrose Bierce.

Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me!

"Abroad, adh. At war with savages and idiots. To be a Frenchman abroad is to be miserable; to be an American abroad is to make others miserable."

Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don't know.

Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.)

Extremists right and left are cut out of the same piece of cloth

From Florence King's With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy. Purchased and half read fifteen years ago, then set aside temporarily for some unremembered reason. I came across it on my shelves yesterday and am finishing up reading it. As insightful, sharp and entertaining as ever. Page 168.
Comparing Bierce's reaction against democracy to that of the later Mark Twain, Edmund Wilson wrote: "The insistence of Ambrose Bierce on discipline, law and order, and on the need for the control of the disorderly mob by an enlightened and well-washed minority has today a familiar fascistic ring."

True enough, but the left-wing Wilson forgot to include his own side. Socialists have their own agenda for discipline and law and order, and they also believe in the control of the disorderly mob by an enlightened, though not necessarily well-washed, minority. Extremists right and left are cut out of the same piece of cloth. Both are idealists with lofty standards for human nature who often become misanthropic once the inevitable disillusionment sets in. Right wingers, concluding that mankind is despicable and hopeless, turn to the savage misanthropy of Jonathan Swift and Ambrose Bierce. Left wingers, concluding that mankind is inherently good and needs only one more chance to prove it, turn to the sentimental misanthropy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his naive dream of universal love and cooperation. Both are susceptible to totalitarianism, for when human nature invariably declines to be perfected, the only thing left to perfect is the State.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Behind the Screens

Dennis Butts has an essay, Seeking an Oasis in the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed. He references a poem by a nurse from among the Oasis collection of World War II poetry:
Behind the Screens
by Joy Westren

Meticulously
I dress your wound
knowing you cannot live . . .
In ten swift rivers
from my finger-tips
Compassion runs
into your pale body
that is so hurt
it is no more
than the keeper
of your being.
Behind these screens,
soldier,
we two are steeped
in a peace deeper
than life gives,
you with closed eyes
and I moving quietly
as though you could wake,
all my sense aware
that your other self
is here,
waiting to begin
life without end.

Roofed with lost opportunities

From Story of My Life by Augustus J.C. Hare, preface.
IN the autumn of 1878, the desire to comfort and amuse one of my kindest friends during hours of wearing pain and sickness induced me to begin writing down some of the reminiscences of my life. As almost all those who shared my earlier interests and affections had passed away, I fancied at first that it would be impossible to rescue anything like a connected story from "the great shipwreck of Time." But solitude helps remembrance; and as I went on opening old letters and journals with the view of retracing my past life, it seemed to unfold itself to memory, and I found a wonderful interest in following once more the old track, with its almost forgotten pleasures and sorrows, though often reminded of the story of the old man who, when he heard for the first time the well-known adage, "Hell is paved with good intentions," added promptly, "Yes, and roofed with lost opportunities."

On contradiction

Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The new culture spread slowly at first

From the June 11th, 2011 edition of The Economist, The Neolithic Boom-Time Machine. Reports on a new technique for dating archaeological remains to a much narrower and accurate time range than is currently possible. With the more precise dates, a new understanding of sequence of events and possible cause and effect are emerging. Pretty neat.
Agriculture seems to have arrived fully formed in what is now Kent, in the south-east, around 4050BC. The new culture spread slowly at first, taking 200 years to reach modern-day Cheltenham, in the west, but over the following five decades it penetrated as far north as Aberdeen. Soon afterwards, causewayed enclosures (circular arrangements of banks and ditches hundreds of metres across—see picture) began springing up all over the country.

Why and why not

In the June 11th, 2011 edition of The Economist, there is a book review of Conservativism by Kieron O'Hara. Apparently the book spends a fare amount of time attempting to settle on what constitutes a conservative and I can see where that is a tangled ball of yarn.

I wonder if it isn't as simple as "A conservative asks why? A liberal asks why not?" Maybe.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies page 19.
When I teach Jane Austen, I pause over a description of the Bennett sisters' hearing the sound of horses' hooves a mile away and ask students to try to imagine the ambient silences of the early nineteenth century, where sounds were discrete and distinct, and the sounds of the natural world were not obscured by white noise. The point is this: because they hear so many words so constantly, their capacities to savor words - to pause over them, ponder them, reflect upon them, hear the echoes of ancient cadences, and attune themselves to allusiveness and alliteration - are eroding. I witness this every year.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cherish silence

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies lists a series of strategies for serving as good stewards of language. These are:
Love words
Tell the truth
Don't tolerate lies
Read well
Stay in conversation
Share stories
Love the long sentence
Practice poetry
Attend to translation
Play
Pray
Cherish silence
Behind each injunction is an insightful essay.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The long conversation that is the warp and woof of civil and communal life

Oh, dear. A couple of days ago I mentioned that I had picked up Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and was looking forward to reading it. I still am looking forward to it but on slightly different grounds after having read the first few pages.

She is a graceful writer and I happen to agree with many of her conclusions and recommendations regarding reading, writing, words and conversation. Yet the rational which she offers, the basis for her recommendations, is so factually wrong that you can't help but feel bemused.

The trouble begins on page 17 when she departs from her field of expertise, theology and English, and seeks to create an analogy based on economics to underpin the threat to language.
The ecological crisis that we are facing might briefly be described in terms of three general problems. First, the ways we provide food, clothing, and shelter for ourselves in the industrialized West - methods of agricultural production, water management, fuel extraction, and resource use - have become unsustainable. Second, terms like "productivity" and "healthy economy" have obscured the idea of stewardship in ways that dull the conscience and blind the eye to practices that are fundamentally destructive of the common good. Third, the radical imbalance in resource distribution and ownership worldwide is unprecedented. "Multinational" corporations largely under North American management control a wildly disproportionate amount of the world's resources and labor. Those of us in the North American church are, as Ron Sider so eloquently put it, "rich Christians in an age of hunger." Practices that benefit us directly harm others.
Where to start in this field of unconscious misanthropy, ignorance and self-loathing? I guess at the beginning.
the ways we provide food, clothing, and shelter for ourselves in the industrialized West - methods of agricultural production, water management, fuel extraction, and resource use - have become unsustainable.
Just plain out and out wrong. Our methods of agricultural production, etc. have become dramatically more efficient and sustainable. We are extracting more engergy per ton of coal, more food from less land, better allocating water resources, etc. all the time. Better than five years, almost unbelievably better than fifty years ago. The issue is not in the methods but in the driver - population. As long as the world population is growing faster than our increase in efficiency and productivity, then we risk greater ecological damage.

It is easy to flay the evils of faceless commerce, business and multinationals. Easy but wrong. It is much harder to admit what she is actually complaining about, that there are too many people. Hence the accusation of unconscious misanthropy. If you believe there should be fewer people, say it. But don't expect anyone to step up to the table and wish to be part of the solution to that particular problem.

The reference in this sentence to "ourselves in the West" also illuminates a further intellectual blind spot. Our methods of production and our technology are dramatically more sustainable than those in the past or in the rest of the world. If we were to try and produce the volumes of food, clothes, and shelter required using the technologies and methods of fifty years ago or which are used elsewhere today, the ecological impact would be cataclysmic. This factually unsupportable desire to blame the West leads to the accusation of self-loathing. Popular in academia I am sure, but a trait with little benefit or attractiveness, especially when based on ignorance.
terms like "productivity" and "healthy economy" have obscured the idea of stewardship in ways that dull the conscience and blind the eye to practices that are fundamentally destructive of the common good
An unsupported statement, a belief without evidence. Maybe this is happening but there are many reasons to believe not. Most businesses, and certainly the overwhelming number of large businesses, are very much focused on stewardship. Stewardship of their people, their customers, their resources. They exist in an environment of constraints and are in constant pursuit of sustenance and continuity. There are very few businesses established with an expected end date. How well businesses pursue their goal of sustained growth is a different matter. They show the same variation in effectiveness that is so evident in all fields of human endeavor. But are businesses and our language of business dulling the conscience and blinding the eye? I don't know; perhaps. But I would certainly, if I were Ms. McEntyre, read my Adam Smith first, remembering that he was first, last, and always a moral philosopher and not, as he was subsequently dubbed, an economist.

The real meat for the accusations of ignorance, misanthropy and self-loathing lurk in her final point which because of its density of error, warrants detailed parsing.
the radical imbalance in resource distribution and ownership worldwide is unprecedented
Certainly not unprecedented. Whereas today, the bulk of surplus capital (productivity) is concentrated in North America and Europe, in the year 1,000, it was similarly concentrated in India and China and in 2000 BC it was concentrated in Egypt and the Middle East. The concentration is not new. What is new is the reduction in concentration. In the immediate post World War II years, the US was as much as 50% of the world economy. We are now about 21% of the world economy. Given that we are about 4% of the world population that does still mean that we are enormously productive and disproportionately wealthy. The reduction in that concentration though, reflects a fifty year journey of more countries sharing in more of the benefits of global trade. The increasing productivity and wealth of countries such as India, China, and Brazil reflect an equalizing of income across the globe that, disruptive as it is in the short term, is enormously beneficial in the long term.

It is almost inconceivable that any intelligent person could have been reading any reputable papers or magazines over the past twenty years and not be aware that the world is becoming wealthier and that that wealth is becoming more equally distributed.
"Multinational" corporations largely under North American management control a wildly disproportionate amount of the world's resources and labor.
Wrong and becoming more wrong every year. As referenced above, the US (and its multinationals) are less and less of a percentage of the global economy each decade, not because we are declining but because others are becoming more productive.

Yes, US multinationals control a disproportionate amount of resources still but that control is sharply constrained (both by our laws and the laws of those sovereign nations in which they operate), and it is eroding. To take the simplest of examples and a bug bear that has haunted the imagination of academia for decades; the oil industry. For all that Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron, etc. strike fear and loathing in the hearts of conspiracists and academics, there are only two western oil companies among the top twenty global oil companies and their share in percentage terms of global oil and gas resources is in the low single digits. There are some few industries in which American multinationals dominate, but they are few and under constant competitive threat.

To believe that American multinationals call the shots across the globe would seem to reflect a decades long Rip van Winkle event.
Those of us in the North American church are, as Ron Sider so eloquently put it, "rich Christians in an age of hunger."
No doubt that North American churches are disproportionately wealthy, but in an "age of hunger"? Please. The whole of human history was an age of hunger up until sometime in the sixties or seventies. Death by starvation was a frequent occurrence in good times and bad. What percentage of the global population today dies of hunger each year? A miniscule percentage. When and where it happens, it is a tragedy which I do not belittle. But it happens rarely. This is not, except in the fevered imagination of isolated intellectual populations, an age of hunger.

Finally, McEntyre saves the biggest humdinger of all till last:
Practices that benefit us directly harm others.
It is as if Ms. McEntyre has never heard or comprehended the concept of comparative advantage (known and understood in economics for some 150 years). It is as if she believes all human affairs are a zero-sum game, a notion demolished in detail by the author Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

So I face the conundrum of an author whose argument is in part built on analogical argument that, were it not so sad, is laughable in its fallacy. And yet . . .

As erroneous and fallacious as her predicate analogy might be, I do not dispute her summing up. I agree with her conclusion, not the path by which she reached that conclusion:
Those of us who preach and teach and minister to each other need to focus on the word - on words - more explicitly, intentionally, and caringly as part of the practice of our trade. This is necessary and urgent activism: to resist "newspeak," to insist on precision and clarity, to love the bald statement, the long sentence, the particular example, the extended definition, the specifics of story, and the legacy of language we carry in our pocket Bibles and on the shelf with Shakespeare. We are stewards of treasures that have been put into our keeping. We're not doing too well with fossil fuels and wetlands. I commend those causes to you as well. But along with them, conversation itself - the long conversation that is the warp and woof of civil and communal life - is in need of preservation and renovation.

Peter's admonition to "be sober, be watchful" applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Call things by their right names

The Economist, November 21, 2009, page 21.
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names, advises a Chinese proverb.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered

Quoted by Joseph Epstein in his essay, Heavy Sentences.

From F.L. Lucas in Style.
It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars.”

Monday, June 20, 2011

Shared stories and surprising sentences

Just picked up Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and based on the first few pages am very much looking forward to reading the whole thing. Many excerpts to follow. Page xi.
There are gracious and inventive ways to enjoy words and to reclaim them as instruments of love, healing and peace. All of us who speak, read, write, and listen to each other have the opportunities to that and to foster the kinds of community that come from shared stories and surprising sentences.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Like trying to judge a glass of milk by looking at the cow

Interesting thoughts from Megan McArdle in Against Art in Politics, and Politics in Art on the gulf between what an author writes and the life they actually lead.

Other good quotes:
you cannot improve your library by purging all the authors with terrible ideas; you can only empty it.
George Orwell, who was more of a gimlet-eyed realist than most ideological writers, nonetheless believed a fair amount of ludicrous nonsense, such as his assertions that collectivism was necessary because a capitalist society could never produce enough to win World War II.
Upton Sinclair envisioned The Jungle as a socialist manifesto which would inspire people to rise up and tear down the system; what he actually wrote was a food-safety tract which inspired massive sanitary regulation of the meatpacking industry.
Because it is the power of the narrative, that we are responding to, not the soundness of the ideas themselves, we have no way of knowing whether we have been convinced of good things or bad. Policing art so that you only get "good" ideas from it is even more futile--the quest for stirring narratives which reinforce what you already believe is no healthier in a person than in a society. In some sense, we live inside a well-imagined novel, and so it's not exactly surprising that even when we're confronted with new evidence, it's emotionally difficult to discard the "evidence" of our own "experience". In some fundamental way, great political narrative has the power to make you, not smarter and better, but stupider and more passionate. Feminists who admire political fiction should think hard about the ways in which women have learned to love their restrictions through the fiction that romanticized them. If you are saying to yourself, "which is why it's so important to combat this with the right sort of moral narratives" then you are simply begging the question.
She can be quite pointed:
Authors aren't good policy architects. They're also not good moral philosophers--they're good at dramatizing moral conundrums, which is not the same thing as resolving them. Look at how some major authors resolved relatively simple questions like "should I cheat on my wife with this nubile fan?" "Would it be a good idea to stick my annoying wife in an asylum for the rest of her life and never visit her?" "Should I use my position as a screenwriter to double as an inept propagandist for the Soviet Union?" "Might it be a good idea to abandon my children to whoever will care for them?" "Should I stab my wife if I am mad at her?" "Who should I support in World War II--my own country, or the Nazis?" "Should I try to get a murderous felon released and feted by the New York literary establishment in the brief time before he kills someone else?"
And here is a thought that gets to the heart of the matter:
The job of literature is to engage us with the world, not to sanitize that world so that we can't think bad thoughts.