Journal: Friday, November 22

classroomOn a whim yesterday I wasted twenty minutes on a quiz on the Christian Science Monitor website: it was a condensed version of a test that 8th graders in a Kentucky school district had to take in 1912 to determine whether they were fit to proceed to high school.

How hard could this be, right? This is test aimed at kids who are — what? Thirteen? In Kentucky, in 1912.

It was a humbling experience.

The only area in which I can say I excelled was geography; everything else was a struggle. Math? I produced pages of meandering calculations resulting in lame guesses. English? I didn’t know my adverbs from my adenoids. American history? You would have thought I was born and raised in Latvia. (I know that the Civil War took place somewhere in between the War of 1812 and World War One, but questions about individual battles? Individual generals? Forget about it.)

A study presented at an American Heart Association conference last Tuesday suggests that kids are less physically capable than their parents were at that age: slower, weaker, less agile. This comes as no real surprise to most people, since we’ve long been aware that children are becoming more sedentary as video games and the internet — coupled with more parental anxiety about allowing kids to run around outside — replace bicycles and baseball. The question of intellectual achievement, however, has always been measured between and among groups of children contemporary with each other: we worry that American students don’t perform as well on math tests as Korean students, or on geography as well as German kids, but we aren’t comparing American students of 2013 with their American counterparts of a century ago, possibly because we know that it’s a contest they can’t win.

I’m a long way from the eight grade. At my age there is a certain “I’m sure I used to know this, but …” factor, but that’s a slim excuse at best. I should be able to compete with my grandfather as a child — I’ve had more time to forget, true, but I’ve also had more time to learn.

Another excuse we often hear is that there is just so much more to know now than in previous generations. This also is a pretty weak argument: yes, we have things like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the personal computer to keep up with, but our ancestors in 1912 were coping with the invention of the telephone and motion pictures, the electrification of the cities, the arrival of the automobile, and with the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg and British Empires. Keeping up with current events was no easy task then, either.

I scored 86% on the test — not bad, but hardly stellar. The average score for visitors to the CSM website? In the mid fifties, a definite failing grade.

What does all this mean? Are conservatives right when they tell us that the more sophisticated curricula and powerful teachers’ unions of today are diluting the value of education? Or is it that we aren’t going far enough to empower teachers and upgrade materials, as progressives insist?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but after struggling through that test yesterday, I’m definitely thinking more about the question.


See what you made me do…

Not my fault! The devil made me do it!

The devil made me buy this dress …

The thing that I find most disturbing about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s ongoing meltdown is not the crack smoking, or showing up stoned at a charity function for wounded soldiers, or calling a south-Asian taxi driver “Paki”, or threatening — on video — to grab an automatic weapon and slaughter his political opponents. What shocks me most are his constant expressions of outrage and wounded pride at being called to account for his actions.

So many elected officials — not just here in the US, mind you, but even in the sedate world of Canadian politics — seem to reach a certain point in their careers at which they feel that they are beyond the need for apologies, beyond accountability, beyond all personal responsibility. When the shit hits the fan, they blame the fan for the mess that ensues.

Perhaps this is simply an extension of the cult of celebrity that surrounds many elected leaders today: they are described as “media darlings”, “rising stars”, “shining lights” — the same sorts of expressions that might be applied to a pop singer or a professional athlete. Intelligence, hard work, and dedication may be there, but those don’t make very compelling news copy: we’re far more interested in how quickly the individual has risen to prominence, or in whose company, or on the back of what theatrical rhetoric. When faced with this sort of deification day after day, who wouldn’t begin to feel as though he (or more rarely she) is somehow beyond the ordinary rules of right and wrong?

  • Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, called to account recently for a string of obvious and egregious plagiarisms in his public speeches and writings, has made it clear that the skunk in the woodpile is not the high-profile political figure who steals from others, but the press and pundits who keep catching him at it.
  • Former US Representative Anthony Weiner, when caught sending sexually explicit text messages and photos to a series of young women around the country, offered a somewhat half-hearted apology then turned on the media for “persecuting” him — after which he continued to send sexually suggestive messages to women, still complaining all the while of his mistreatment by the press.

In centuries past, public officials viewed bribery and extortion as a perquisite of the job. Why else would anyone subject themselves to the aggravations of holding office? “Baksheesh”, a Persian word that became widespread in the days of the Ottoman Turkish empire, could mean a tip, a contribution, or a bribe, interchangeably; today we pretend that these things are actually separate and distinct, but in politics, little has changed. The line between a campaign contribution and a bribe is drawn with a very light pencil; “personal time with friends” can mean anything from a weekend of golf courtesy of the Koch brothers to a drug-addled rampage in a suburban crack den.

Marion Barry, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Kwame Kilpatrick: the list is depressingly long. In so many cases, the individuals involved had no prior history of corruption or sexual misadventures or substance abuse: only after achieving positions of power and prominence did the imp of the perverse take control. (Admittedly, until these men became important, the mainstream press was hardly likely to be interested in their pecadilloes, but given the microscopic scrutiny that politicians must undergo during the endless cycles of campaigning and politicking, it seems unlikely that ongoing problems of such severity would have escaped notice.) More importantly, once caught with their hands in the cookie jar (or down their boxer-briefs) they are invariably shocked — shocked — that people might hold them responsible for their own actions.

According to British historian Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This is a phenomenon that is not difficult to understand, even by those of us who have never had the opportunity to wield — or abuse — power. What Lord Acton doesn’t mention is the inability of powerful men to accept the blame for their own sins, which I personally find much harder to accept. We all make mistakes, but not all of us have thousands, even millions, of other people depending on our honesty and integrity, trusting us to do the right thing — and when in the wrong, to ‘fess up, to make amends, and to make a real and sincere effort to do better in the future.

Whenever Geraldine Jones — frisky alter-ego of funnyman Flip Wilson in the early 1970s — would find herself caught in an indiscretion, she didn’t lash out at her accusers: she generally had the good grace to admit her mistakes, and her excuse — “the devil made me do it!” — was certainly as good as any I’ve heard lately.


In a Sea Rendered Great

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Here’s a scenario we may all recognize:  Little Johnny comes home from school with a black eye and a split lip and his parents discover that he’s been in an altercation with the notoriously arrogant and bullying Jim-Bob from the mobile home park across the tracks. Johnny’s wounds are salved with an outpouring of parental sympathy and dire mutterings that “something really has to be done about those people.”

Skip ahead six months: Johnny comes home with similar injuries, except this time they’ve been inflicted by Bubba, the notoriously arrogant and bullying youngest son of the president of the First National Bank. This time, instead of sympathy, Johnny gets a vigorous swabbing of isopropyl alcohol and a lecture. “What did you do to provoke him? You can’t be going around picking fights — you’ve got to learn to get along with people.”

Befuddled, little Johnny goes to his room without supper to contemplate the error of his ways. What happened? In both cases he was attacked by a bully, in both cases he was the wronged party, why the different responses, as if he were two different people?

Welcome to the concept of “worthy victim” and “unworthy victim”.

In Steubenville, Ohio, when a group of boys raped a sixteen-year old girl, much of the public outcry was focused not on the boys but on the victim — she was drunk, she deserved it, she ruined the lives of these promising young athletes by pursuing the charges. The girl became an “unworthy victim”, deserving not sympathy and justice for the appalling crime to which she had been subjected, but censure for the damage she had done to the perpetrators by having presented them with the irresistible opportunity to stray.

Victims like her, by virtue of being victims, are ready targets when assigning blame for the incidents that mar human interaction at almost every level: It’s easier to kick the man who’s down than to face off against the aggressor and risk suffering ignominy in our turn. We attack the victims because they are victims, we want to reassure ourselves that their victimhood is the result of something fundamental, some basic flaw that the rest of us do not share. We don’t think “There, but for the grace of God go I”, but rather, “Thank God I’m too moral, too careful, too savvy for something like that to ever happen to me.” We accept the criminal as something other, something so different from ourselves that to some degree we can forgive the crime, because it has nothing to do with us. We can’t forgive the victim, because he or she reminds us of our own vulnerability.

“It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds”.

— Lucretius

This perception of the degree of difference or similarity between ourselves and the victim, coupled with our capacity for empathy, make a great deal of difference in our reaction to an incident: It seemed strange to many commentators that the most virulent abuse of the Steubenville victim came from other girls her age; in fact, the closer to the victim in age, economic position and social status the other girls were, the more antagonistic their responses seemed to be. The problem here was that when the differences were so slight it became very difficult for the other girls – all potential victims themselves – to find any comfortable degree of separation from the crime. They needed to believe that what happened to her could not happen to them, that there was something about her that made her a victim – more importantly, an “unworthy” victim – that could not be applied equally to them.

And what of the “worthy victim”? He or she is just as much a victim as the other, but here we identify, we sympathize; we perceive the worthy victim as courageous or morally elevated, and we rush to associate ourselves with his plight. The insurgent and the freedom fighter often operate from identical motivations, using identical tools, but we make a distinction, we identify with one but not the other based on our understanding of our own lives. The worthy victim is ourselves, placed in extremis, forced by circumstance to manifest an innate heroism that we want to believe we all share, even if, in our day to day lives, we fail to demonstrate anything of the kind. We “go along to get along”, while all the while clinging to the notion that we, too, could stand up and say “Give me liberty, or give me death”, if circumstances required.

Here again, the way we distinguish between the two extremes is often dictated by our ability to separate ourselves from the critical situation. It’s easy for a middle-class white American to find the necessary distance from a genocide in Rwanda or a massacre in the streets of Cairo because we know that we would never find ourselves in such a position; the environment, the people, the issues are just too alien. We’re more sympathetic with the victims because we’re less empathetic. Similar episodes in Sarajevo or World War II Berlin evoke a more complex response, because the victims look so much like us — they could be us — which means we could, someday, be them, and we hate them for that; we hate them for making us feel our own potential for weakness, for suffering, for victimhood.

So is this morally wrong, this business of “worthy” and “unworthy”? It may not really be a question of morality: in the end, these distinctions have less to do with the victims of suffering than they do with our own insecurities, our ability to place ourselves in the role of victim. Perhaps the most most important moral component of the issue is that our responses, viewed honestly and carefully, can be an opportunity to learn and to grow, to create something positive from that suffering, and through growth, to end it.

Wouldn’t if be fine if, when we stand on the shore and watch our neighbors struggle in turbulent seas, we can learn not just to throw a lifeline when needed, but to calm the waves themselves?

An Open Letter


In the early days of the presidential campaign season of 2008 I remember looking at the available choices and wondering who, among a fairly impressive cast, would be the man or woman who could stimulate a bit of interest – or even enthusiasm – in an electorate exhausted by disappointments.

When it became clear that my Democratic Party was going to be deciding between two historic choices, a young and relatively obscure African-American, and an extremely well-known (if somewhat polarizing) woman, I still refused to be seduced: gender and race were not the criteria upon which to base my choice.

Then, as the process ground on, I began to see that perhaps, after all this time, race had become irrelevant: was it possible? The unknown candidate with the odd name and confusing antecedents was beginning to emerge as a man with a vision, and with the brains to turn that vision into a concrete reality. As weeks turned to months, my interest turned to passion, and I began to talk about change, to argue with reluctant friends and family, to debate, to push – I had found someone who could bring back some of the luster to a tarnished and abused office, someone I could believe in.

Now, six years later, as I see more whistleblowers being prosecuted by this government than by any in our history; as I see journalists intimidated, threatened; I see a heavy curtain of secrecy being drawn over the activities of government – I feel betrayed. History has demonstrated again and again that the short-term benefits of opaque government, of secrecy and suspicion, ultimately pale beside the abiding need for an informed and engaged populace. Had Richard Nixon been able to treat those who fought to expose his abuses of power the way you, Mr President, are treating those today who seek to shine a light behind that curtain, we might never have known about the Enemies List, about the Watergate coverup, the sabotage of the Vietnam peace negotiations — our democracy might have suffered damage from which it would never recover.

What, Mr President, will be your legacy? Will future generations look back on this presidency and mark this as the point at which “an informed electorate” became not the prime mover of government but its enemy, to be suppressed, watched, kept as much in the dark as possible at every historic moment of decision? Will Bradley Manning spend the rest of his life in prison for having helped to bring about the end of a war that was begun in lies and misdirection? Will Edward Snowden become a permanent refugee for finally allowing the American people to begin a debate about practices begun in dark paranoia and the kind of “we know what’s best for you” paternalism that might have been more appropriate to a Stalin, or Rios Montt, or Pinochet?

I hope not.

There’s that word again: “hope”. What do I hope for, now? I hope, Mr President, that you remember that protecting the people by locking them in a box is not the American way, whatever dark moments we may have had in our past. I hope that you realize that just because the technology for control and manipulation exists, it doesn’t have to be used — and if it must be used, that it should be a last resort, a response to clear and present danger, not a knee-jerk reaction to complex realities. I hope you understand that, as foolish as we often are, we are the people, and that the more informed we are, the better equipped we are to face the challenges that confront us both as individuals and as a nation.

I hope.

At this point, that’s all I can do, but you, Mr President, can do so much more. Rip down that curtain; punish those who break the law, but in a reasoned and proportional way, not as part of a campaign to silence debate, to chill dissent, and to crush the free exchange of knowledge. Let’s end this ugly chapter in our history and get back to work. The future is waiting.

Thank you,

David Holcomb
Winslow, Arkansas

Something In the Dark


I know that you know that I know that you know that I know …

In light of all the recent revelations about government agencies spying on American citizens — and more importantly, all the government’s prevarications and half-truths about the level of detail and the purposes to which that information is being put — I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a reasonably surveillance-proof browser on my computer.

Of course, a part of me says “what the hell for?” Spying on me would be a pretty unsatisfying exercise for even the most eager NSA spyhunter: I don’t lie on my income taxes, I never drive over the speed limit; I don’t even split my infinitives or tear the tags off my pillows. We keep hearing the people who support the surveillance programs saying things like “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”  It’s a pretty safe bet that I have nothing to hide: then what am I worried about?

I think perhaps it’s the very fact that I am such a stickler for the rules, that I do try so hard to always behave properly, to do the right thing, that makes this all so unsettling to me. Who hasn’t been in a situation with the bank, or the insurance company, or the IRS, where you suddenly find yourself in an alternate universe where a bizarre and incomprehensible logic prevails? You find an error on a bank statement, or the cable bill, you make a phone call, and suddenly you’re trapped in some kind of game in which all the rules are absolutely secret, known only to your faceless opponents. You’re in violation of a whole boatload of requirements and regulations that you never knew existed, that you were never intended to know existed, and you’re going to have to pay the price. No appeal, no recourse, no exit.

To be fair, we’re told that the spying program has thwarted “dozens” of attacks (Gen. Keith Alexander) and might have prevented the September 11, 2001 attacks has it been in place at the time. Here again, unfortunately, we’re faced with a case of “trust me”. A group of individuals, operating in blackest secrecy, insists that what they’re doing to us is for our own good, but can’t really tell us precisely how, or why, or on what occasions. Like the balaclava-masked terrorists themselves — or a gang of KKK thugs — if what they’re doing is so noble and necessary, why do they hide their faces? Democratic institutions are often based on compromise: if surveillance programs can’t be designed to operate within established constitutional limits, let’s at least provide a system of rules that allow us, the voters, whom these programs are allegedly designed to protect, some role in the process, and some avenue of appeal when we believe that the process is being abused. If we’re so far gone that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must hide from the people, then I think we’ve already lost the war.

–  In Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Trial”, his protagonist Josef K. finds himself suddenly yanked from his humdrum world and forced to stand trial for a crime that no one will specify, by an authority that refuses to identify itself, before a tribunal of faceless strangers.

–  In the “war on terror”, the US government is able to attack its citizens with documents known as “National Security Letters”, in which the offense is not specified, the authority behind the action is secret, and it’s a federal crime to tell anyone — even a lawyer, even your family — that this is happening to you, or has ever happened.

I imagine Josef K. would find that situation pretty damned easy to recognize.

This, I think, is what worries me. I want to do the right thing, to behave, to follow the rules, but when the rules are hidden, and the right thing cannot even be defined, I get stressed, and confused, and angry. I begin to see the institutions I want to trust, that I want to believe in, turning into faceless monoliths, hooded tribunals circling a table in a darkened room, exerting their will on a populace too powerless — or too emasculated by the fear and ignorance such procedures help engender — to demand justice, or at least a little daylight.

I begin to see the people and organizations that I rely upon to protect me becoming the very enemy that I had hoped they would protect me from.

In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there existed an organization called the Star Chamber. This was gathering of men who sat outside government, in secret meetings, operating outside the law, to exercise the will of the king in matters too delicate or too unstable for normal political processes. It was intended as a compromise to protect the nation from revolt and social upheaval, but in many cases the Star Chamber simply devolved into a system for persecuting opponents of the men in power — there were no public hearings, no appeals; cases were tried without witnesses, often without the defendant even knowing that the trial was taking place until punishment reached out of the dark and struck him down.

I am what many would call a “big government” liberal: I believe in the ability of government to improve the lives of its people, through intelligent, enlightened intervention in matters of social change, in health care, in environmental controls, in all of those collective issues that matter so much to us but are beyond our ability, acting individually, to undertake. I can’t guarantee the safety of the water I drink, or the food I eat — that’s a job that requires all of us working collectively. I can’t build a bridge across the creek a mile from my house, not alone: I need my neighbors, my community, my government, to step in and help me.

But when the government begins to act in a way that appears to be completely independent from the people — concealing its actions and its motivations from the people, and in fact begins to treat the people as an enemy that must be watched, and controlled, spied upon and manipulated, even lied to … I worry.

We’re told that our elected representatives in Congress have been privy to what’s happening from the beginning, that they have approved of what the NSA has been doing. The implication there is that, as our proxies, those representatives represent us, that they represent our will in this matter, so if they approve it’s a sign that we approve. Does anyone remember a candidate promising to support secret tribunals and warrantless spying in the last election cycle? I understand that, according to current polling data, a majority of Americans are okay with the surveillance — at least for the moment — but how can we support a program we aren’t supposed to know exists?

And most importantly of all, how can we defend ourselves if we don’t even know we’re being attacked? Who is the enemy? Al Qaida, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Branch Davidians, unhappy right-wingers with a carload of fertilizer — or millions of Gmail and Verizon customers going about their daily lives, unaware that their government believes they may be part of some vast threat? I think there is a difference.

If we willingly accept becoming both victims and criminals in this enterprise, then we may be seeing what has been a magnificent experiment in democracy grinding to an ignoble and grimy end.

Surveillance-proofing my computer? I’ve downloaded the package, but I haven’t installed it. After all, what do I have to hide?


House of Mirrors

A Siege of Constantinople, Ogier le Danois, 1499, from the Bridgeman Art Library. Yes, Constantinople looked exactly like that.

A Siege of Constantinople, Ogier le Danois, 1499, from the Bridgeman Art Library. Yes, Constantinople looked exactly like that.

When I was in the fourth grade, we studied Alabama history from a textbook that would probably raise a few eyebrows, were it to reappear today.

Written in the middle of the twentieth century, the book presented the topics of race, politics and economics from a viewpoint that would have seemed perfectly familiar eighty years earlier: slavery was bad for the victims, yes, but they were better off than if they’d been left in Africa without underwear or Jesus; the Civil War was a conflict between the Northern industrial worldview and its Southern agricultural counterpart, with the former attempting to impose itself forcibly on the latter; the economic inferiority of the modern South had nothing to do with lack of education or the rampant inequality of wealth, but was rather due to the pernicious interference in Southern affairs by the Northern-dominated federal authorities.

Don’t get me wrong — not every insinuation was necessary without merit: Reconstruction was brutal, war is always political and cultural, and the terrible institution of slavery was originally brought to this country by the very men and women we revere as its founders, in both North and South. The view through the prism of resentment and isolation, however, was undeniably distorted, and the march of time everywhere else in the world had only made the peculiarities more noticeable.

Fast forward to today: I’m reading a history of Byzantium by Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman (published in 1892) that I downloaded to my Nook from Project Gutenberg. Compared to the 1,400 or so pages on the subject by John Julius Norwich that I already own, this book, at about 250 pages, is hardly more than a Cliffs Notes summary, but it’s a pretty interesting read if you’re into this sort of thing.

Apart from the varying scale of the two works, however, another significant difference jumps out very quickly. The three-volume Norwich history was written during the last two decades of the 20th century, while Oman published his contribution at the end of the 19th: whereas the Viscount Norwich makes some effort to provide an overview of the events of the thousand-year history of the Byzantine Empire without offering a moral or cultural interpretation, Sir Charles makes no bones about where his sympathies lie, every step of the way.

“[My] Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples …”

Herodotus of Halicarnassus


“I write these things as they seem true to me; for the stories told by the Greeks are various and in my opinion absurd.”

Hecataeus of Miletus

The nineteenth century English-speaking world was one where geography, religion and morality were inextricably linked. In any conflict between Christians and non-Christians, the Christians wore the white hats. If the fighting was North versus South, the North was industrious and godly, while the South was decadent and demented by the heat. Asia began at Belgrade, and the further east one travelled, the more heathen and inscrutable the people became, and the more likely they were to be Bad Guys.  (The world being round, the furthest extreme of any West-to-East axis of evil was — naturally — Ireland.)

•   When the heretic barbarian Goths overcame the mainstream Christian Romans in Italy and the Balkans, it was only through some terrible lapse on the part of the defenders. The idea that the Goths may have simply been braver, or smarter, or more motivated on the battlefield just isn’t worth entertaining.

•  When the sinister fire-worshipping Persians trampled the God-fearing Byzantines in Antioch and Jerusalem, it was because of the weather, or plague, or treachery, but when the Westerners won, we know it was because they were superior people, from a superior culture.

•  Attila and his swarthy, slant-eyed hordes didn’t overrun Europe virtually unopposed because they were incredibly energetic and utterly fearless, united firmly behind a bold leader, it was because the Empire was tired and just needed to catch its breath. The superiority of the Europeans was a given, regardless of how badly they lost every contest.

All this this racial and religious prejudice seem very obvious to me now, more than a century later, but I have to wonder: does Norwich’s take on the same events seem so much more balanced and impartial because it really is, or does it look that way because he is of a time and place more akin to my own, so that whatever prejudices he brings to the work are my prejudices also, and therefore invisible to me?

I remember an issue of National Geographic from somewhere in the late sixties which featured an article on Iran — our faithful ally Iran, ruled by a fatherly and benevolent Shah, West-leaning, enlightened, a model for the Muslim world. It was all pretty uplifting, and made Tehran sound like a suburb of Philadelphia. In retrospect, we know that the Shah was a dictatorial and unpopular ruler, and that a great many Iranians clearly did not want to live in a suburb of Philadelphia. Films we saw in school about South Africa sang the praises of this Westernized nation, the economic powerhouse of Africa, while somehow failing to convey the fact that the driving energy of the machine was a vast army of non-European slave-laborers, isolated and repressed by a white minority. The picture of Iran and South Africa that we were seeing was wildly distorted, but at the same time deeply plausible: our own underlying prejudices made it easy for us to accept the distortions. We never looked for answers to questions it never occurred to us to ask.

In every era, people have looked at the old histories and marvelled at their ancestors’ skewed view of events. We laugh at the inconsistencies, we are horrified by the misconceptions — yes, we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants, but these are fairy-tale giants, hairy and uncouth. From our superior sophistication and insight we see their world as it really was, not the funhouse reflection that they themselves looked out upon.

You can see where this is going.

A hundred years from now, or fifty, or five hundred, how foolish will we look when our descendants read through our textbooks, or our newspapers — or this blog? No matter how dispassionate I believe myself to be, no matter how I strive for a clear-eyed and impartial view of my world, in the end I’m only looking in a mirror. The world I see is the world I am capable of seeing, nothing more. My personal limitations restrict just what I can see, and how far, and how deeply: my own reflection is always going to block part of the view.

That said, what’s to be done? Descartes reduced the universe to “I think, therefore I am”, but that’s hardly a basis on which to vote, choose which brand of milk to buy, or build a personal ethos. We have to make do with the vision we have, however impaired, and do our best to see and think as clearly as our minds and hearts will permit. Maybe the only rule should be “I think, therefore I can try my very best to be honest with myself.” We will fail, because the funhouse mirror will always be an imperfect vehicle for viewing the universe, but the very effort makes us better.

And whenever we slip up and forget, History (with a capital “H”) is there to remind us that the more absolutely right we think we are, the more appalled our great-grandchildren are going to be by just how amazingly wrong we were.

[Many thanks to Wikipedia for the quotes from Herodotus and Hecataeus.]

The fine art of seeing.

As I do just about every week, I stopped off on the way home from work last Friday to check a couple of books out of the Fayetteville Public Library. I usually read quite a bit, and I try to keep the beast supplied with a plenitude of reasonably nutritious fare — otherwise I start browsing things like the back of my cereal box or the ingredients list on my Twinkies, and there are some things we really weren’t meant to know.

I don’t know what you’re going on about: I see Paul Krugman.

As I was settling in to dinner later that evening I picked up one of the books to enjoy during my meal — I know: a habit frowned upon in all the nicer homes, but an essential part of my digestive process. I fumbled the book briefly as I was sitting down, and a folded rectangle of paper fluttered out onto my chair.

Down one side of the paper was written, in a tiny handwriting like the footprints of bees, a list:

“Luxeuil; wandering Irish bishops & saints; Boniface of Grediton; Fulda; suburbicarian; the great anarchy; Chronicle of St. Gall by Elekchard IV; Lindisfarne.”

Upon opening the piece of paper, I found that it was a receipt of the kind that public libraries often provide these days, generated by their computerized inventory system. Oddly enough, the receipt was not from the library in whose book I found it, but from the University of Arkansas’ Mullin Library. There were three books listed on the receipt:

“Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”, by Walker Percy; “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer; “The Making of Europe: an Introduction to the History of European Unity”, by Christopher Dawson.

Of those three books, the only one I’ve read is the first, “Love in the Ruins”,  which I read about a month ago — taking it out of the Fayetteville library during the same week as this mysterious other person was borrowing a copy from the University.

No doubt you’re thinking: “What the hell is the point of all this?”  Guess what? There isn’t one! Yep, you’ve been had.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”


— From the Poem “Jabberwocky”, appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there”, by Lewis Carroll

We are primates, underneath all the literature, and our history has left us blessed — or otherwise — with an amazing capacity to perceive patterns. We can look at a clump of shrubbery and spot the apple — or the snake — by the mere visual deviation of those objects from the general background of twigs and leaves. We see patterns, and we see things that interrupt those patterns. That perception kept our hungry ancestors from starving, and kept them out of the bellies of even hungrier predators.

For us, living in our modern world, these pattern recognition skills are still useful, but we’ve had to learn to analyze and interpret what our instinct picks out for us: we notice that one of the cars in the parking lot is moving relative to the others, so we don’t walk out in front of it; we see the fly in our soup, the typo in our term paper, the misplaced decimal in our income tax return, and we use our intelligence to decide how to interpret those things. At the same time, our animal awareness can cause us to force patterns that are not really there: faces in the clouds, writing on a seashell, the Virgin of Guadalupe on a grilled cheese sandwich. To be really useful all of this has to be filtered through the lifetimes of knowledge and insight that each of us has at his or her disposal, through education, through critical thinking, through personal experience.

There is an underlying logic to my mysterious list (“suburbicarian”? “the great anarchy”?) but I don’t know what it is. With a little study, I might come up with some reasonable guesses — I might be able to perceive a pattern — but I might just as likely end up trying to impose my own prejudices. Maybe it was a dyslexic’s grocery list. Maybe it was a secret communique from the Latverian Embassy to Doctor Doom’s covert agents in Northwest Arkansas.

And that, of course, is what art and poetry and almost any other human creative endeavor is all about. Read Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and you’ll find yourself attaching images to the “borogoves” and the “slithy toves” even before Alice prevails upon Humpty Dumpty to explain what they are. Certainly every fortune teller since the days of Noah has understood that most human beings will create a narrative from the skimpiest fragments: A tall, dark stranger? What are the chances of running into one of those, purely by accident? Money changing hands? Rent’s due on Tuesday! How did she know?

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’

– from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

I love patterns that emerge from chaos, like a painting — which is, after all, nothing but dabs of paint on a flat surface — coalescing to show me a princess, or a steak dinner, or a racehorse, each with its own story, its own message, its own meanings to impart.  At the same time, I recognize that perceived patterns aren’t always real patterns, or that there may be legitimate patterns in a body of information, but not those that are immediately apparent. Economic statistics, election-year polling, charts and graphs of all kinds, they are all clouds or trees or oil-on-water rainbows. They can mean something, or nothing, or many things at once, depending on how you parse it out. As with a Monet painting of a haystack at at dawn or a parable from the Book of Matthew, we have to use both our instincts and our intellect to read the message.

I believe in the human role in global climate change; not because someone told me to, but because there is a vast body of data available today in which I can see certain patterns, informed by what I know personally and by the insights of people whose experience and expertise I trust. Other people may look at that same data and see cow farts, or volcanoes, or Elvis, or nothing at all. Within a generation or so, we’ll probably know whose interpretation was correct. On the other hand, I don’t think the alignment of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh and the wording of the Declaration of Independence are related through a common link to visiting aliens from Canopus.

But I could be wrong about climate change, and the Declaration could contain hidden instructions for how to build a warp drive, written in Canopian karbooble ink. We shall see.

We all observe — or very assiduously ignore — the stirring in the bushes, that’s part of our evolutionary birthright: what makes us human is our ability to think about it, to reason and analyze and decide for ourselves whether what’s in front of us is the apple or the snake.

“There was an old lady…”

When I was a child in Montgomery, Alabama, during the very early sixties, I can remember certain areas around town that spent much of the year buried under a green and hairy shroud that covered telephone poles, buildings, billboards, trees, parked cars, slow-moving pedestrians: the dreaded kudzu. Continue reading

The View from the Tower.

I often read novels by Latin-American authors in the original Spanish.

I know, I know: at least part of the reason for doing it is just to be able to make statements like that — we all carve out these nuggets of self-esteem where we can find them — but the fact remains that some stars really do shine brighter in the universes that gave them birth. Continue reading