Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Norman Rockwell’s America

September 6, 2019

On Labor Day we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Rockwell was an “illustrator” who disclaimed producing “fine art.” And some see his oeuvre as a mythologized, sanitized, saccharine picture of a past America.

Yet what is art if not an image that elicits an emotional response? And Rockwell’s pictures are not false. To the contrary, they show us some truths about human life. While cynicism is fashionable, there is reality in Rockwell’s vision. His work reflects a deep love for his fellow humans. And an emotional response was certainly forthcoming in me.

Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long prolific career, starting professionally in his teens; over nearly half a century he produced around 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Seeing the entire sequence, all in frames in one room, was almost dumbfounding, considering how much meticulous care went into each. Many were preceded by full charcoal drafts (also displayed), and fastidiously reworked.

Looking closely, I was struck by how insightfully Rockwell captured facial expressions. His pictures were generally set-pieces almost akin to cartoons. Yet the characters portrayed were not caricatures or archetypes; rather, real people, caught in real moments. I soon found myself looking at fellow museum visitors and imagining them as painted by Rockwell.

My all-time favorite painting was not there, traveling temporarily elsewhere: Freedom of Speech, one of his WWII “Four Freedoms” pictures. But the museum did display a large wartime poster of it. It depicts a real episode Rockwell witnessed (he’s in the picture, peeking out in the upper left corner). The main figure, a very ordinary everyman, rose in a town meeting to speak against a measure most others favored. Yet they gave him a respectful hearing. A lesson for today.

There was also Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not the familiar image; one I’d somehow never seen before. And no typical portrayal of womanhood. This is one tough babe. A real riveter. (The pose is an exact homage to a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. And her foot’s on Mein Kampf.)

And about that idea of a sanitized America: I noticed an explanatory label mentioning that Rockwell was once forced to paint out an African-American on a magazine cover because you could only portray blacks in menial roles. However, later in his career, Rockwell felt free to be forthright in addressing the race issue in his paintings. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” depicts a couple of young black children, just arrived, warily confronting a trio of white kids. The gap between them is wide — literally. But both sides hold baseball gloves, and you have the sense that it’s going to be all right.

One point I noticed is that Rockwell’s black children were always immaculately dressed: painted with respect.

Then there’s his iconic picture, “The Problem We All Live With.” This too was out traveling, but on a large reproduction I noticed a detail I strangely didn’t remember: the word chalked on the wall.

Afterward, in Stockbridge, we stumbled upon the little Schantz Galleries (3 Elm Street, “behind the bank,” the sign says). The ground floor had a display of Chihuly glass art. Nice enough; but upstairs: WOW! Also all glass art, but absolutely amazing. Remarkably too, by a large number of different artists.

Modern art too often actually rejects any ethos of beauty. Not so here. The sheer aesthetic beauty of these pieces was breathtaking. It was hard to believe human beings could create such wondrous things.

Making me feel exalted to be human.

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A vision for America

September 2, 2019

Trump has a vision of America. It says the real Americans have been under assault — economically and, mainly, culturally — by “others.” From outside, and from within. That there was some halcyon greatness lost. Mainly, frankly, it was whiteness. It’s white supremacy in all but name.

This vision, David Brooks has written, “contradicts the traditional American idea in every particular. In fact, Trump’s national story is much closer to the Russian national story . . . an alien ideology he’s trying to plant on our soil. Trump’s vision is radically anti-American.”

It opposes a vision rooted in our founding ideals. “American exceptionalism” is a contentious phrase. But America is indeed unique among nations in being constituted on a set of ideals rather than on blood-and-soil.

They’re embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Which, remember, was addressed to the world. Because our founders saw this nation as forging a new path for all humanity into a brighter future. They were looking forward — not backward to make something “great again.”

What were those ideals? Democratic self-government, all people being equal in their freedom to pursue happiness, and in their diversity all coming together to build our city upon a hill. As expressed too in our national motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one. An ideal of openness and generosity.

The Declaration said “all men,” not all people, but that’s what was meant. And meant fully and sincerely, despite some writers being slaveowners. No humans could have transcended all the bounds of their time and world all in one leap. Yet their leap was great indeed.

It did transcend their consanguinity, in their recognition that the nation they launched would grow beyond it. One of the Declaration’s stated grievances against the British was their impeding the naturalization of newcomers to America!

So theirs was indeed a vision for the future. And the America they set in motion did, through the years, ever more fully come to realize their vision. To realize its motto. Uniquely a magnet for people coming from all over to enrich this nation with all their variety.

Brooks again: “This American idea is not a resentful prejudice; it’s a faith and a dream.” And Trump’s vision, he says, “is an attack on that dream.”

This is our choice, standing at an epochal historical crossroads. Will we follow Trump’s dark path — leading to everything our founders actually rebelled against? Or resume our journey along the brighter path they marked out?

But how many Americans today still see that path? Have that vision in their hearts?

Brooks ends by quoting the black poet Langston Hughes, writing at a time when the Declaration’s equality was much further from fulfillment:

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath

America will be!

Is the novel dead (or dying)?

August 31, 2019

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.

Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories

August 28, 2019

Tony Judt was a lefty intellectual historian who died at 62 of ALS in 2010. When I was writing The Case for Rational Optimism,  he wrote Ill Fares the Land, his title a seeming rebuttal. Indeed, it was a lament that his leftist politics was losing. Still considering myself a “conservative,” I didn’t read it, put off by the tendentious title.

That was then.

Recently I stumbled upon Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Judt with Timothy Snyder, published in 2012; transcribing conversations the two had while Judt neared death. Much is rather abstruse intellectualizing about the interplay among the century’s big “isms” — Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism. In that landscape, classical liberalism may be likened those little proto-mammals eking out existence amidst dinosaurs.

That past world might seem remote to us now. But the world of 2010-12, when the book was compiled, already feels similarly remote. In hindsight an interlude of comparative calm and sanity. The 20th century turmoil analyzed in the book has many current parallels. It’s a pity the authors didn’t get to discuss them.

Many other writers and thinkers are mentioned, including some clear-sighted ones, like Orwell, able to penetrate the fog of the sturm und drang around them. But mostly one is driven to scream, “Was everyone nuts?” One line, mid-book, jumped out at me: ” . . . the biggest story of the twentieth century: how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.”

How that resonates in our current moment! Britain is literally destroying itself in a manic Brexit seizure. Italy and Brazil elect clowns and knaves. Others throw democracy away. And in America a big population segment tells itself a story grotesquely at odds with truth.* Whose terrible consequences I’m still hoping can be stanched.

Part of the explanation is fingered by Judt the historian. People fall for false stories because they don’t know true ones, ignorant about facts shaping their cultures.**

It’s an odd feeling reading this book’s discussion of a past time with so many disturbing echos to my own. Today any sane person knows Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were monsters.*** But back then an awful lot of people were telling themselves different stories. Just like today with Trump.

I believe future generations will look back on ours with restored clarity. They too will wonder “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories.” Unless Trump and his ilk succeed where those earlier monsters failed, and finally do create the world Orwell warned about.

* Watch for their snarky comments on this blog post! But it’s not just the political right. Judt was sympathetic to socialism, but the book shows how that faith failed. Yet now America’s left is telling itself a false story about it. Or trying to sell one. (No, socialism is not merely government building schools and roads.)

** Unfortunately when they move on to more current affairs, the authors go down a rabbit hole. Smugly dismissing the thinking of almost everyone else (like “the egregious Thomas Friedman”) not conforming to their rarefied ideas. Actually a distorting left-wing lens, full of notions I found cockeyed and just plain wrong.

*** Notably, the authors avoid any mention of Mao. Is that monster (unlike Stalin) still an icon a true-blue left-winger refuses to criticize?

Dear Abby

August 20, 2019

I love reading “Dear Abby.” For the letters; not the advice dispensed. The original “Abby” was great, but she passed on and the column is now done by her daughter, who is frankly uninspired. Too often her “advice” is like, “Tell your husband exactly what you said in your letter.” Well, thanks a lot for that brilliant solution. And too often her answers really miss the boat.

Recently a single column had two in that category. Here are the letters (slightly condensed), “Abby’s” verbatim responses, and what I’d have said —

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend and I have been dating for nearly two years. He would literally do anything for me. He’s incredibly affectionate and supportive, and a lot of women would love to have someone like him.

My problem is we see the world through completely different eyes. I’m an artist. I want to go out and explore the world and do crazy things. He’s more comfortable at home with video games and he’s not comfortable mingling with crowds. He can be overprotective sometimes . . . . We live together and are dependent both financially and emotionally. Honestly, I would like to stay with him, but I’m torn about what to do. Should I leave someone I should be grateful for in order to chase selfish dreams? Or should I stay and encourage him to change?

ABBY: Your boyfriend isn’t going to change. If you can’t accept him the way he is, then it would be better for both of you to separate.

FRANK: What exactly are these “selfish dreams” you want to chase? Is your boyfriend stopping you? Can you “go out and explore the world and do crazy things” yourself, and then come home to his affection and support? Is he okay with that? But meantime there’s a certain word conspicuously missing from your letter. It’s “love.” People with very divergent personalities can love each other and accommodate to each other’s differences. But without love, that will ultimately fail.

DEAR ABBY: For our anniversary, I bought my wife a $1,500 necklace, and told her that if she wanted, it could be exchanged at the store. She went out and came back with a different piece of jewelry that cost an additional $800. Besides the financial aspect, I’m feeling hurt that what I gave was not adequate enough for her. Am I being too sensitive here?

ABBY: You are a generous and loving husband. You should not, however, feel hurt that your wife exchanged the necklace. You told her she could, and she took you up on it. Perhaps next time you should consider asking her what she would like, so you can choose the gift “together.”

FRANK: She did that without even asking you? That was not an “exchange,” it was an upgrade, which you did not authorize. Simply inexcusable. Tell her to return the item. She does not deserve to have it; nor deserve you.

Sentinel: The Statue of Liberty

August 17, 2019

In 1986, when the Statue of Liberty was being refurbished, I made a donation. Later, receiving another solicitation in the mail, I said to myself, “No, I already gave.” But I read the thing anyway. And guess what? I wrote another check. Love that gal.

For Christmas I received Francesca Lidia Viano’s book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty. A 499-page tome delving deeply into the monument’s cultural, historical, mythological, iconographic background. It ominously begins with the story of the Trojan horse!

The statue was a gift from France, though no Trojan horse. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was the sculptor and chief promoter of the project. Less well known was the key role of Edouard de Laboulaye, a political and intellectual activist, collaborating with Bartholdi. Viano explores what they were thinking — and it had nothing to do with welcoming people to America.

They called her “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The torch obviously fit with that. Yet even that name seems to have been something of an afterthought. The book’s title, Sentinel, is more to the point. The lady was really meant to be a guardian. Thus her stern expression. She may even have a concealed weapon.

This has more to do with France’s cultural context than America’s. Her 1789 revolution was more of a societal upheaval than ours. And France had further revolutions, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. They also had Napoleon, long looming over the French psyche. Consequently, for them, Liberty had to be a combative figure. This is epitomized by Delacroix’s painting of the 1830 revolution, Liberty Leading the People. In that uprising by commoners, women were prominent; Viano suggests Delacroix’s Lady Liberty may have been a prostitute. Ours is that same gal (albeit more modestly clothed), with combativeness still part of her essence as originally conceived.

Bartholdi actually started with an idea for an Egyptian monument, but couldn’t sell it as such, so he Americanized it, as embodying friendship between his country and ours. But he soon realized it needed a larger moral meaning. As “Liberty” she has that, but ultimately Bartholdi envisioned even more. The statue may be seen as representing America itself, giving all humanity a new dawn.

Or as a memorial to Revolutionary war dead, both French and American. Celebrating sacrifice and regeneration. A monument to U.S. industrial strength; to maritime commerce; to global free trade. Her spiked crown may have been inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem Stella; it may represent a “morgenstern,” a medieval weapon, a club topped by spikes; or Christ’s crown of thorns. Or she could embody Hermes, messenger of the gods. A torch-bearer was a canonical figure in Masonic ritual. Or the torch could stand for the Promethean gift of fire; or, says Viano, she could represent “An Orpheus shedding light on man’s painful condition.” The lady did appear to have quite the dark side; there was something of the underworld about her.

And meantime, Bartholdi seems to have been much the momma’s boy — with a lot of her in the statue too.

All the foregoing actually doesn’t begin to dissect everything about her mythological, iconographic antecedents, as explored in the book. But all of that became somewhat beside the point, because America embraced the statue differently from what its progenitors imagined.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Emma Lazarus’s poem trumped everything else — imbuing the monument with a new, positive, humanistic, uniquely American meaning. Viano (perhaps too embedded in her Francophone story) gives Lazarus scarcely a page, saying that whereas the French vision was concededly too dark, hers “was much too benign.” She even mocks Lazarus’s reference to the lady’s “mild eyes,” when people at the time actually noted their severity.

But it’s her torch that’s really her essential feature; what she now represents being a synthesis between that physical image and the reflective imagery of the poem. The lamp lighting the way to the golden door.

And today, I see defiance in her pose; and if her eyes are tough, defiance in them too. Steely-eyed, she stands sentinel, more so now than ever. Our still undaunted guardian of what America means.

* * *

Postscript: Trump’s immigration worm, Stephen Miller, in a White House briefing, spat on the Lazarus poem, insisting it “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” The other day new strictures on immigrants were announced, denying green cards if they access any public benefits.* I heard on the radio someone said the poem should be changed to read “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” I assumed that was sarcasm from an administration critic. But no, it was said by Ken Cuccinelli — the acting head of ICE. He also said the poem referred only “to people coming from Europe.”

In fact it states, “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.”

This administration’s sadistic treatment of suffering migrants is a crime against humanity.

* To which they’re lawfully entitled. Had Congress, in enacting these programs, meant to limit them just to citizens, it could have so stipulated. It did not.

“Science for Heretics” — A nihilistic view of science

August 10, 2019

Physicist Barrie Condon has written Science for Heretics: Why so much of science is wrong. Basically arguing that science cannot really understand the world, and maybe shouldn’t even try. The book baffles me.

It’s full of sloppy mistakes (many misspelled names). It’s addressed to laypeople and does not read like a serious science book. Some seems downright crackpot. Yet, for all that, the author shows remarkably deep knowledge, understanding, and even insight into the scientific concepts addressed, often explaining them quite lucidly in plain English. Some of his critiques of science are well worth absorbing. And, rather than the subtitle’s “science is wrong,” the book is really more a tour through all the questions it hasn’t yet totally answered.

A good example is the brain. We actually know a lot about its workings. Yet how they result in consciousness is a much harder problem.

Condon’s first chapter is “Numbers Shmumbers,” about the importance of mathematics in science. His premise is that math is divorced from reality and thereby leads science into black holes of absurdity, like . . . well, black holes.* He starts with 1+1=? — whose real world answer, he says, is never 2! Because that answer assumes each “1” is identical to the other, while in reality no two things are ever truly identical. For Condon, this blows up mathematics and all the science incorporating it.

But identicality is a red herring. It’s perfectly valid to say I have two books, even if they’re very different, because “books” is acategory. One book plus one book equals two books.

Similarly, Condon says that in the real world no triangle’s angles equal 180 degrees because you can never make perfectly straight lines. Nor can any lines be truly parallel. And he has fun mocking the concepts of zero and infinity.

However, these are all concepts. That you can’t actually draw a perfect triangle doesn’t void the concept. This raises the age-old question (which Condon nibbles at) of whether mathematics is something “out there” as part of the fabric of reality, or just something we cooked up in our minds. My answer: we couldn’t very well have invented a mathematics with 179 degree triangles. The 180 degrees (on flat surfaces!) is an aspect of reality — which we’ve discovered.

A key theme of the book is that reality is complex and messy, so the neat predictions of scientific theory often fail. A simplified high school picture may indeed be too simple or even wrong (like visualizing an atom resembling the solar system). But this doesn’t negate our efforts to understand reality, or the value of what we do understand.

Modern scientific concepts do, as Condon argues, often seem to violate common sense. Black holes for example. But the evidence of their reality mounts. Common sense sees a table as a solid object, but we know from science that it’s actually almost entirely empty space. In fact, the more deeply we peer into the atomic and even sub-atomic realms, we never do get to anything solid.

Condon talks about chaos theory, and how it messes with making accurate predictions about the behavior of any system. Weather is a prime example. Because the influencing factors are so complex that a tiny change in starting conditions can mean a big difference down the line. Fair enough. But then — exemplifying what’s wrong with this book — he says of chaos theory, “[t]his new, more humble awareness marked a huge retreat by science. It clearly signaled its inherent limitations.” Not so! Chaos theory was not a “retreat” but an advance, carrying to a new and deeper level our understanding of reality. (I’ve written about chaos theory and its implications, very relevantly to Condon’s book: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/chaos-fractals-and-the-dripping-faucet/)

After reading partway, I was asking myself, what’s Condon really getting at? He’s a very knowledgeable scientist. But if science is as futile as he seems to argue — then what? I suspected Condon might have gone religious, so I flipped to the last chapter, expecting to find a deity or some other sort of mysticism. But no. Condon has no truck with such stuff either.

He does conclude by saying “we need to profoundly re-assess how we look at the universe,” and “who knows what profound insights may be revealed when we remove [science’s] blinkers.” But Condon himself offers no such insights. Instead (on page 55) he says simply that “we are incapable of comprehending the universe” and “there are no fundamental laws underlying the universe to begin with. The universe just is the way it is.” (My emphasis)

No laws? Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation is a pretty good descriptor of how celestial bodies actually behave. A Condon might say it doesn’t exactly explain the orbit of Mercury, which shows how simple laws can fail to model complex reality. But Einstein’s theory was a refinement to Newton’s — and it did explain Mercury’s orbit.

So do we now know everything about gravitation? Condon makes much of how galaxies don’t obey our current understanding, if you only count visible matter; so science postulates invisible “dark matter” to fix this. Which Condon derides as a huge fudge factor. And I’m actually a heretic myself on this, having written about an alternate theory that would slightly tweak the laws of gravitation making “dark matter” unnecessary (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/there-is-no-dark-matter/). But here is the real point. We may not yet have gravitation all figured out. But that doesn’t mean the universe is lawless.

Meantime, you might wonder how, if our scientific understandings were not pretty darn good, computers could work and planes could fly. Condon responds by saying that actually, “our technology rarely depend[s] on scientific theory.” Rather, it’s just engineering. “Engineers have learnt from observation and experience,” and “[u]nburdened by theory they were . . . simply observing regularities in the behavior of the universe.”**

And how, pray tell, do “regularities in the behavior of the universe” differ from laws? In fact, a confusion runs through the book between science qua “theory” (Condon’s bete noire) and science qua experimentation revealing how nature behaves. And what does it mean to say, “the universe just is the way it is?” That explains nothing.

But it can be the very first step in a rational process of understanding it. Recognizing that it is a certain way, rather than some other way (or lawless). That there must be reasons for its being the way it is. Reasons we can figure out. Those reasons are fundamental laws. That’s science.

And, contrary to the thrust of Condon’s book, we have gained a tremendous amount of understanding. The very fact that he could write it — after all, chock full of science— and pose all the kinds of questions he does — testifies to that understanding. Quantum mechanics, for example, which Condon has a field day poking fun at, does pose huge puzzles, and some of our theories may indeed need refinement. Yet quantum mechanics has opened for us a window into reality, at a very deep level, that Aristotle or Eratosthenes could not even have imagined.

Condon strangely never mentions Thomas Kuhn, whose seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions characterized scientific theories as paradigms, a new one competing against an old one, and until one prevails there’s no scientific way to choose. You might thus see no reason to believe anything science says, because it can change. But modern science doesn’t typically lurch from one theory to a radically opposing one. Kuhn’s work was triggered by realizing Aristotle’s physics was not a step toward modern theories but totally wrong. However, Aristotle wasn’t a scientist at all, did no experimentation; he was an armchair thinker. Science is in fact a process of honing in ever closer to the truth through interrogating reality.

Nor does Condon discuss Karl Popper’s idea of science progressing by “falsification.” Certitude about truth may be elusive, but we can discover what’s not true. A thousand white swans don’t prove all swans are white, but one black swan disproves it.

And as science thusly progresses, it doesn’t mean we’ve been fools or deluded before. Newton said that if he saw farther, it’s because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And what Newton revealed about motion and gravity was not overturned by Einstein but instead refined. Newton wasn’t wrong. And those who imagine Darwinian evolution is “just a theory” that future science may discard will wait in vain.

Unfortunately, such people will leap upon Condon’s book as confirmation for their seeing science (but not the Bible) as fallible.*** Thinking that because science doesn’t know everything, they’re free to disregard it altogether, substituting nonsense nobody could ever possibly know.

Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. Science is not a “faith.” Nor even a matter of “belief.” It’s the means for knowing,

*But later he spends several pages on the supposed danger of the Large Hadron Collider creating black holes (that Condon doesn’t believe in) and destroying the world. Which obviously didn’t happen.

**But Condon says (misplaced) reliance on theory is increasingly superseding engineering know-how, with bad results, citing disasters like the Challenger with its “O” rings. Condon’s premise strikes me as nonsense; and out of literally zillions of undertakings, zero disasters would be miraculous.

***While Condon rejects “intelligent design,” he speculates that Darwinian natural selection isn’t the whole story — without having any idea what the rest might be.

Democrats and America’s soul

August 5, 2019

In the debates, the Democratic candidates had much to say about policy issues. But that isn’t what this election is about. It’s about America’s soul. What the country stands for. What it means.

Only one of the debaters really seemed to get it. Ironically, the one all the rest beat up as yesterday’s man, out of touch, not getting it. In fact, he’s not on their wavelength — but the right one. That’s Biden.

It’s not as though the others are oblivious to Trump’s monstrousness. Yet they seemed to focus more on criticizing Obama’s administration than Trump’s. (As a Republican I criticized Obama plenty myself.) This shows how far left they’ve veered, pandering to the party’s activist base of zealots. Not even Obama met their purity test.

So we hear policies like decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing*; free healthcare for everyone including the undocumented; free college, ditto. And slavery reparations.

To politically correct “progressives” these might seem no-brainers, but to most Americans they’re brainless. This plays into Trump’s hands, eager to portray Democrats as crazy socialist radicals.

Biden was if anything too timid about separating himself from all that.** He can let the others divide the hard left vote, and scoop up the moderate centrist vote.

But again this election is not about policies. As news commentator Dan Balz said, there’s too much “I have a plan for that,” not enough “I have a vision for America.” Democrats should be full-throated in defending our fundamental values that Trump is shredding. Only Biden is really focused on that. We’re a nation defined by its motto, e pluribus unum —out of many, one. Enriched by its diversity, an open society, sufficiently confident of itself to welcome the newcomers who refresh our culture, and for full engagement with a globalized world, leading the free nations and standing for what’s right.

Not a society mired in resentful white nationalism. Trump won last time partly on economic populism, but hasn’t delivered on those phony promises, so now he’s going full Monty on racism and cruel xenophobia. This is the battleground he’s chosen.

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Let’s have this battle. Trump is betting that half of Americans, at least, are as hateful as him. The insane political strategy of a deranged fool. I’m betting decency will prevail.

* A point that seemed overlooked is that crossing the border to apply for asylum has never been illegal.

** He even caved on the TPP. Trump’s exiting the TPP was nuts. But Democrats are so muddled themselves about trade policy they failed to criticize the madness.

William Kennedy and magical realism

July 9, 2019

William Kennedy (now 91) is the great Albany author. Others (like Melville) have had Albany connections, but in Kennedy’s oeuvre, Albany itself holds center stage; it’s called his “Albany cycle.”

In 2018 Paul Grondahl and Suzanne Lance of the New York State Writers Institute published Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, which includes several critical essays.

I’ve read it, and many of the novels, but have nothing profound to add. I just want to comment on a recurring theme applying the “magical realism” label.

In great part that’s because ghosts appear in Kennedy’s books; notably a veritable convocation of them in Ironweed’s opening. In Legs, the title character has much to say after being shot dead. Maybe this is pedantic, but I don’t consider this “magical” because I don’t think the reader is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine those ghosts are real and speaking. A world in which they did would be an alternate reality (as in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism), but Kennedy is writing about our actual world. And it’s peopled by many ghosts, in the sense that the dead are still with us, haunting us not as cartoon spooks but as personages whose relationships with us we continue to process after they’re dead. That’s certainly what’s happening in a novel like Ironweed. To me it’s a form of realism because it’s really getting into a character’s head. The ghosts are a literary device for doing that.

In fact Ironweed in particular I consider the realest realism. The protagonist is a homeless bum in 1938’s Albany, and the lives of such people are shown to us in full intimate grittiness, with no romanticizing. And in full humanity. Francis is not “just” a bum. He is a man haunted by ghosts, wrestling with them. That’s the reality shaping his life.

By the way, I always thought Ironweed a great title. While the plant of that name actually has little resonance for the book’s content, the name’s two components are redolent with connotations that do.

I myself wrote a book about Albany, in 1973, but oddly never crossed paths with Kennedy until 2011, when he had a signing for a new novel. When I handed him my copy and identified myself, he started writing . . . and wrote quite a lot. The recognition was very gratifying. Kennedy is not only a great writer but a gracious human being.

He has also been an inspiration to me, quite literally. At a 90th birthday celebration there was a film about his using his MacArthur grant money to create the Writers Institute. That was a great thing. It made me want to do something great too, with the money I’m fortunate to have. And one of the resulting grants likewise involves writers — Secular Rescue, protecting them from harm in intolerant societies.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.