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A Perplexity

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I suppose I ought to start by saying that although an individual can make up his mind about what is moral or immoral on the basis of anything at all, I still maintain–and have maintained–that you can’t base a moral code on the Great Tradition.

And studying the Great Tradition won’t make you more moral than you would be otherwise, nor will it teach you how to live, or any of the rest of it.

The Great Tradition is information, and that information will certainly come in useful for all kinds of things, but the kind of information it is–the record of human beings thinking and writing in a particular way–will preclude it from being the basis of a moral code.

What can be the basis of a moral code is a thorough understanding of reality–not only of how human beings think and act as individuals, but how societies progress or regress and develop when they are founded on and run by particular sets of ideas. 

And yes, I think I can get far more of a consensus on that than I could on any religion-based moral code, for the same reason that people of differing religions do indeed accept the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric solar system and the basic principles of engineering as applied to suspension bridges.

I think that if we can prove, factually and materially, that polices a b c produce a society with attributes d e f, while attributes g h i produce a vastly different society with vastly different attributes j k l, more people than not will opt for the arrangement that most increases their prosperity, their physical health and their ability to pursue happiness.

I think DNA has a lot to do with it.  I think most people do indeed make a decision for such an option every day.  That’s why we’re in the period of mass migrations.

You’ll note that, no matter how much the great socialistic dictatorships promised cradle to grave economic security, nobody was banging down their doors to get in. 

People vote with their feet for the very set of assumptions I’ve been talking about.  And it doesn’t require God or ideology to recognize them.  A clear look at the way the world operates will do fine.

But now I’ve got a strange problem, and I’m hoping some of you can help.

This term I assigned some of my students Darrell Huff’s How To Lie About Statistics, in the hope that it would get them to think critically about at least some of what they read.

It’s short, it’s clear, it’s engagingly written, I think it would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the fact that the book itself was written in the fifties, the examples are all from the fifties, and that means the dollar amounts for things like salaries are…well, from the point of view of my students, ludicrous.

Theoretically, of course, it shouldn’t matterin any logical sense, but it causes a huge hole in the willing suspension of disbelief, if that makes any snse.

Anyway, they can’t get past it.  They get so fixated on the numbers that they find absurd–wow!  some executives make hundreds of thousands in bonuses a year!–to the point the illustration is supposed to make.

So I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something else out there with more contemporary examples that is still, essentially, the same book. 

The extent to which my kids cannot read numbers in any sense, statistics or otherwise, is really incredible. 

Okay.  It’s hot.  I’m miserable.  I have to go listen to multimedia speeches on cat behavior.

Long story.

Written by janeh

April 30th, 2009 at 11:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking German in a room full of people who only understand  Cantonese.

First, I NEVER SAID that it was possible to bse morality on the Great  Tradition.

Second, I NEVER SAID  that studying the Great Tradition could tell us how to be moral, or help us to be moral, or anything like that.

In fact, I’ve repeatedly said the opposite of both those things. 

There is one reason and one reason only to study the reat Tradition–because it’s there.

It’s a record of the history of certain kinds of activity on the part of human beings, and that makes it worthy of study and worth the time it takes to understand it.

Humanists study the Great Tradition for the same reason botanists study plants–to know and understand it.  Period. 

A botanist can tell you that if you eat broccoli you’ll increase your supply of  B vitamins which can make you healthier in certain specific ways, and if you eat arsenic it can make you dead. 

He can’t tell you which of these alternative outcomes you “should” want, and you don’t expect him to.

A Humanist can tell you that certain progressions of thought result in certain predictable evolutionary arcs, and that if those ideas are tried in practice they lead to certain predictable practical outcomes.

He cannot–and should not be expected to–tell you which of those outcomes you should prefer.

When  I  say it is possible to found a moral code on the human experience, without recourse to God, I mean that we can outline the RESULTS of putting certain kinds of ideas into practice.  

The line between stimulus and response is not as simple as the one for broccoli, arsenic and bodily health, but it is possible to draw it with some accuracy, even allowing for individual idiosyncracies.

Why shouldn’t I eat my roommate if he and I want that?

Because in doing so, you’re treating your roommate as a means to your ends, rather than as an end in himself.

Societies that treat human beings as means instead of ends have certain predictable outcomes, most of them unpleasant.  Societies that treat just some people as means and others as ends have outcomes that are somewhat less unpleasant, but still not optimal.  Societies that treat all human beings as ends in themselves and forbid their use as means for others have other predictable outcomes, most of the far less unpleasant.

I don’t think that reason can tell you why you “shouldn’t” eat your roommate, but I do think it can tell you that if your society allows it, or even morally tolerates it, the result will be a specific set of predictable outcomes.

You are then free, of course, to decide whether or not those outcomes are what you’re looking for.

But here’s the thing.  Although humans come in infinite variety, human nature is not fungible.  It can’t be anything at all.  And because of that,  I’m willing to bet pretty much anything that the majority of human beings will sign on to that set of ideas/assumptions/morals/policies that are most likely to result in their living in a society where they’ll be most likely to be healthy, prosperous, and happy, and at libierty to pursue their own version of happiness.  

Will there by discontents in such a society?  Yes, of course.  The cannibal will find his pursuit of happiness thwarted.

But it isn’t necessary to sign on everybody on the planet.  It’s only necessary to come to a consensus about a very few specific things.

Those of us who would prefer to live in primitive misery in order to keep God’s law or live in a world where nobody has a dime more than we do are few and far between.  When they manage to take over a country, they can hang on to power only by restricting the ability of their people to vote with their feet. 

In order to come to a moral code with this sort of basis, we’d have to study history, tradition, neuropsychology, you name it–not just the Great Tradition, which would be just one source of information among others that would need to be considered.

The  Great  Tradition can show us how people do philosophy.  It can show us the way human beings have lived.  It can let us look into the long converation about the most basic of human questions–what does it mean to be human?  why do we die, and what does it mean that we die?  what is love?  what is greed?  what does it mean to say that something is morally good?

But you can’t found a moral code on it, for the same reason you can’t found a moral code on botany.

It’s just one part of a much bigger picture.

Written by janeh

April 29th, 2009 at 6:46 am

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Towards the end of every term, after months of getting squishy essays about “my opinion” of right and wrong, I set a free writing exercise for my students on a famous German case.

The case went as follows:

A German man who had “always wanted” to cook and eat another human being placed an advertisement on the Internet for someone who had always wanted to be eaten by a another human being, and got a volunteer.

The two men then essentially moved in with each other, while the first man cut off various of the second man’s body parts, cooked them, and then served them to both, until the second man was dead, and the rest of the body parts went into the freezer.

At about this point, the German government figured out this was something they ought to be concerned with, and arrested the cannibal for murder.

Now, I tell my students–what should the German government have done about and to the cannibal?  What should the government’s stand be on cases like this?

You can find the particulars of the case here


and I apologize if Igot something wrong in the details, but for the purpose of the exercise, it doesn’t really matter.

That’s because this case is in fact not significantly different from any case involving what has come to be known as “assisted suicide.”  Almost any argument in favor of assisted suicide will serve to defend the cannibal and his…um…partner for doing what they did.  If the only standard you have for why something should be considered legal or illegal, or moral or immoral, is whether the adults were consenting, you’ve got to allow voluntary cannibalism just as well as “assisted suicide.”  After all, it’s a kind of assisted suicide.

I’m bringing all this up because of Robert’s ringing declaration that the Great Tradition will not suffice to provide the foundation of a moral system most of us would want to be part of, on the assumption that most of us are not in Peter Singer’s camp.

And all I can say is–you’d better hope to hell he’s wrong.

Realistically, we’ve got three possible positions here:

1) we can found morality on religion

2) we can found morality on a reasoned inquiry into the realities of what it means to be human

3) we can declare that all morality is relative and a matter of opinion.

Of the three options about, the only one that is completely IMpossible is the first.

I could base my argument for the impossibility of a religiously based morality (for the world) on the obvious,which is that whatever Marx or Lenin may have felt about the need to get rid of a personal God before embarking on a career of mass slaughter and the advocacy of mass slaughter, the Christian kings and prelates who wiped the Albigensians out of France felt no such compulsion, and they were hardly the only example within Christianity.

Nor will it do to proclaim that they were violating the basic tenets of Christianity, or betraying its ideals, because they didn’t see it that way.  All the way down to the days of Cotton and Increase Mather, there have been Christians who held it to be the highest duty of Christianity to wipe all sorts of people off the face of the earth.

And once you get outside Christianity, it gets worse.

I’ll stick to my characterization of people like Lenin, etc, as theological thinkers.  Their thinking had more in common with the people who took out the Cathars than it did with the equally atheistic thinking of somebody like, say Ayn Rand.

But that particular aspect doesn’t matter nearly so much as the reality of a world as technologically advanced as this one.

Here’s the deal–no single religion commands the allegiance of a majority (rather than a plurality) of people on earth.

What’s more, as long as communications are open and individuals have access to information about lots of different belief systems, fragmentation of belief is going to grow stronger, not weaker.

Given that, and given the fact that in order to ground a morality that works in the world in religion, you’d have to find a way to unify the religious beliefs of a solid majority of humanity, you’ve basically got only one option: find a way to cut people off from information about competeing belief systems.

The governments of Iran and China, being equally theologically based, do just that in attempting to restrict the access their citizens have to books, magazines, travel and the Internet.

The Taliban took this insight to its logical conclusion and simply went back to the stone age, almost literally.

An open society is necessary for all that stuff we like, from Bollywood movies to the germ theory of disease.

An open society isone in which it will be impossible to arrive at any religious consensus whatsover.

Once we’ve figured that one out, we’ve got the last two options:  find a way to ground morality in the reality of human experience, or give up and declare all moral systems relative.

Taking the relativity route lands you where my students were yesterday–in situation after horrific situation which you just know is wrong, but can’t articulate the wrongness of, never mind finding some way of limiting the damage or protecting against it.

So we need to be able to articulate and defend a moral code that can be accepted by all people everywhere, regardless of religion, a code whose basis all (or most) people will accept because it is part of the day to day factual reality of their world. 

Of course, some people have used secular systems of morality to champion all the things we don’t want, but people have used religious systems of morality to do the same. 

People are people, and there’s never going to be an end to that.

But if we want the world we’ve made to function, if we want the benefits of the free flow of information and ideas, we need to find, articulate, advocate and finally enforce a common understanding of what is moral.

For all of us.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2009 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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Carbonated is what I call what I feel like on days like today, when all my muscles seem to have bubbles in them and I find it hard to sit still and concentrate.  When this happens when I’m trying to work, work becomes impossible.  Today I got lucky, and work went fine.  I didn’t start feeling carbonated until later.

All of this is by way of saying that I’m a little scattered today, and that may become obvious as I get to what’s coming.

What I wanted to do was to respond to another e-mail coment by Robert, and one that goes bac to a number of the themes I’ve been going on about for a while.  The comment goes like that:


It’s worth keeping in mind that all the good theoretical monsters from Rousseau through Pol Pot seem to have had pretty good educations. Try Rousseau, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler Mao Castro and Pol Pot. Some invented their systems and some implemented those devised by others, but they were all well grounded in the humanities. Hitler might have been the worst for formal education, but he was a pretty fair autodidact. Except for Mao, who was influenced by it, all have to be placed in the Western tradition, but it never keeps the corpses from piling up. The old joke in Economics is that it doesn’t matter if last year’s test questions leak: the professors keep the questions, but change the answers. The knowledge you share with these people has not brought them to your conclusions.
For that matter, consider the followers. No, the philosophers of death and oppression don’t emphasize the less savory consequences of their proposals–but that just gives them something in common with seekers after public office, surgeons and sellers of physic. At some point, even the dullest henchman discovers that the will of the people means strapping three year old girls to benches so they can be guillotined, that the dictatorship of the proletariat means whole nations disappearing into the Gulag, and that racial solidarity involves gassing babes in arms. How many then say, “if this is where my belief system leads, I’ll have none of it?” Some, but very few. (For that matter, read of the Fabians’ excitement and joy at Lenin and Stalin, and you have a pretty fair notion of where they would have taken Britain had they been able.)
Articulate why the Western tradition does not lead you where it led them, and I believe you’ll find a choice not based on scholarship, whch means better scholarship won’t prevent the next ones.
Let me try to fix my scatteredness by doing this out by points. 
1) The first big problem I have with the above is that  it ignores the obvious.   The Western tradition has indeed produced Marx, but it’s also produced Adam  Smith, John Locke and  Thomas Jefferson.  The tradition is not a conclusion, it’s a process, a habit of mind. 
And that habit of mind–the life of the mind, as it’s usually put–is the greatest, strongest, and most productive tool ever invented by human beins.  And like all great and productive tools, it can be used for things that are not good as well as for things that are good.  The hammer doesn’t become unworthy of use because some people will use it to bash in their spouse’s skulls instead of fix the porch step.
What’s more, without the Humanities, the world might lack Marx, but it would certainly lack the United States of America, because the US was founded by Humanists on the basis of what they had learned from and expanded on in the Humanities. 
Without the Humanities, there would be neither democracy nor the free enterprise system, and there would be nothing at all in the way of individual rights.
2) The study of the Humanities isn’t supposed to lead to moral and political conclusions, any more than the study of physics is.  There are Humanists who have embraced collectivism, totalitarianism and genocide, and there are plenty of natural scientists who have done the same. 
The problem here is the continuing insistence that the ‘point” of studying the Humanities should be virtue or democracy or some other “good” outcome.  But the point of studying the Humanities is the same as the point of studying the Sciences–because the  material is there to be studied.  It is an integral part of life on this earth.  It’s worthy of study because it exists. Period.
I wonder how much the resistance to this idea–to the idea that the Humanities constitute a field of study worthy of consideration in itself, without reference to practical aims–is a leftover of a pre-scientific, pre-Renaissance vision of the status of scholarship, and how much is the habitual American insistance that everything be “pragmatic.”
Physicists want to know how subatomic particles work because the particles are there and they want to know.  If there’s some practical application of that somewhere, they don’t really care. 
I study the Humanities because it’s there and I want to know how it works.  It doesn’t require any more justification than that.
3) What the people Robert doesn’t like above actually had in common was not a groudning in the Humanities (which is iffy in some of the cases, especially Stalin’s, and which they share with people like Ayn Rand), but a particular and rather peculiar habit of mind.
It’s the habit of mind that Paul Johnson is really talking about when he divides “intellectuals” from “men of letters,” making all the intellectuals he likes–like Kipling–not really intellectuals at all.
The habit of mind shared by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, yes, Peter Snger, Noam Chomsky and that idiot lawyer whose name I’ve forgotten who responded by reports of the killing fields of Cambodia by saying “I do not criticize socialist governments,” is essentially theological.
Hegel sst out to replace God with History, he ended up turning History into God.  Since then, not a single one of his intellectual descendants has deviated from the course, until very recently, when a bunch of them have been deifying “science.”
The problem with theology is that, when you’re dealing with the Word of  God and there’s a conflict with reality, you must always give up reality in favor of God. 
Theology was once called the “queen of the scienes,” and starting in the middle ages it had a firm place at the very center of the Humanities.  In fact, Humanism was defined, originally, as theology that concentrated on the relationship of God and man (instead of on the attributes of God alone).
I’m more than willing to accept that theological thinking is a Really  Bad Idea, but I’m not giving up the Humanities.
The  Humanities are what told me that theological thinking was a bad idea, and what provided the only alternative to that way of thinking that had ever existed on earth.

Written by janeh

April 26th, 2009 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Okay, before I start in on th is for real, I’d like to recommend this link


which goes to an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the study of literature in schools and colleges.  In a way, it constitutes one possible answer to the first part of the e-mail from  Robert that I’m going to post next, and it’s interesting reading for anybody who likes to think about reading.

As to the e-mail from Robert, the salient part is this paragraph, and  I think it manages to sum up why it is Robert and I are never going to respond the same way to literature in general or to the study and teaching of literature in particular.  Here’s the paragraph:


Still brooding over your belief that a love of reading can’t be instilled or encouraged and that it’s unreasonable to expect English teachers in the critical years even to make an effort. How about we split the difference? Have them teach video games the way they teach literature: a semester of Pong and a semester of Donkey Kong accompanied by lectures on how important these are to the culture and how it’s the student’s duty to learn them, followed up by writings on the place of Space Invaders in the origin of the modern video game–all explained in excruciating and boring detail,and with never the least implication that someone might play these voluntarily–oh, and be sure to be condescending toward any game a student does enjoy. If you can’t instill a love of books, I’m pretty sure that method wold instill a distaste for video games and level the playing field. Imagine what could be done to TV with such a program.
This first thing that strikes me about this paragraph is this:  I have never in my life had a literature course that would fit the description Robert provides above.
Not once.
I have had good literature courses, and bad literature courses, and mediocre literature courses, but none of them have been the kind of thing Robert describes.
I’ve also got to admit that I’m always a little suspicious when people tell me that they’re being “looked down on” by people who are theoretically, at least, better educated or more urban than themselves.
Bill came up with a concept when we were living in New York that he called “rubophobia.”   I don’t like the neologism, because it seems to mean “fear of rubes,” but what he reall meant was “fear of BEING THOUGHT OF as a rube.”
If you live in a place like New York, you run into a fair amount of this sort of thing, especially by people who come to the city from the Midwest.  I think it’s a result of the combination of two factors.
First, there’s the fact that the person sees himself as somehow lacking, that he fears he isn’t smart enough or educated enough or sophisticated enough and that whatever he lacks is likely to be apparent to everybody.
Second, there’s a clanging case of cultural dissonance, in that certain styles of speech and expression, which might signal one thing in Topeka, don’t necessarily signal anything at all when produced by New Yorkers in New York.  And that same dissonance can occur between educational types and levels–what might signal “contempt” of produced by a high school kid does not necessarily signal contempt when produced by a guy with a master’s degree. 
NOTE–I’m talking here about styles.  I’m talking about vocal intonations and syntax and common ways of expressing things, as well as the use of “big words,” since what makes a word “big” is in the eyes of the beholder.
At any rate, I have run into too many cases of rubophobia not to wonder when somebody tells me his English teachers “looked down” on him.  I’ve been accused myself of snobbishness, pretentiousness, and a whole rank of other things–remember that woman who thought I was “haughty”–simply because I talk the way  I talk.  
You’ve got no idea what an odd or disconcerting experience it is to be just sort of talking away, thinking you’re having a pleasant conversation about something, only to have the person you’re talking to suddenly explode into recrimminations, “Who do you think you are?  You’ve got no right to judge me!?
When you weren’t juding them at all.  Or even thinking about judging them.  You were talking about cucumbers.
I have a bigger problem with this than some people do, because I’m saddled with a real Connecticut Gold Coast accent.   I’ve worked on it for years, and it’s better than it used to be, but at my worst I sound like a cross between Katharine Hepburn and Ann Coulter.  My voice alone can sometimes send a certain kind of Midwesterner straight up the wall.
That said, my English courses have simply not been the kind of thing Robert describes.  My bad ones have been simply boring, or–mostly in college–tendentious.  My good ones have been contextual and historically informed.
But most of the courses I’ve taken have been mediocre, and they’ve consisted of reading the books and then talking about them in a vaguely systematic way, usually accompanied by questions that used to seem to me to be so obvious that they would make me roll my eyes in exasperation.
The “readings” approach described in the article whose link I posted above can be good, bad, or mediocre.  The best “readings” based courses actually have you analyze work from different readngs systems and see what you get.  The bad just drum home whatever the reading du jour is.  
But even then, my courses were nothing like what Robert describes.
Let’s take Faulkner’s “A Rose for  Emily,” one of those short stories now beloved on Freshman Englihs anthologies.
A bad class in “A Rose for Emily” would be having the students read the thing and then the teacher droning on for an hour and twenty minutes about the Southern Gothic and oh, look at how bad they treat the Negroes.
A mediocre class in “A Rose for Emily” would concentrate on discussing “issues,” like “who is the narrative of this story?” and “in what ways is Emily’s relationship to the town like her relationship to her father?”
A good class in “A Rose for  Emily” would make sure students knew the answers to the kinds of questions the mediocre class asks, but then show them how the story is actually a metaphor for the postBellus South’s relationship to its own past. 
But, as I said, absolutely none of it was, for me, what Robert described.
As for his question–if we taught video games the way he was taught literature, would kids still like video games?–the answer is
Yes they would.
They would still like them because they would have played them before they ever got into a classroom.  They would know most of what they know about video games from sources outside of school.  School would therefore have little or not impact on whether or not they liked videogames, although it might affect which ones they liked.
And in the end, that’s the problem with reading.  My father became a great reader not because his English classes were better or worse than ours, but because they didn’t particularly matter.  He was already a great reader before he got to school. 
As long as reading most students “only” do in school, as long as they come from homes where nobody reads and nobody even knows anybody who reads, they’ll respond to even the best of  English classes as something that has no relevance to the real world at all. 
It’s just something they make you do in school, so the sensible thing is to do as little of it as possible until you reach the point where you’re not in school any more, and then you never have to do it at all. 

Written by janeh

April 25th, 2009 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Greener Grass

with 6 comments

Somewhere around the year 300 BC, the Greeks sent a diplomatic mission, headed by a man named Megasthenes, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in India.  Everything we know about this mission is at secondhand.  Megasthenes wrote a book about his travels, but all manuscripts of it have been lost.  We know what he said only insofar as parts of it have been quoted by other ancient writers.

One of the most quoted bits is Megasthenes’s observation that, “No Indians ever set out beyond their own country to wage aggressive war because of their respect for justice.”

I came across that quotation the other day in a book called India by Michael Wood.  I like this book a lot, although it’s essentially a coffee table glossy with accompanying archeological travelogue.  But maybe, just because it is what it is–because Wood, like Megasthenes, is a Western traveler enthusing about India–this whole situation struck me more forcefully than it might have done in a regular book of history.

I mean, let’s look at this for a minute.  Chandragupta Maurya is the first man ever to establish an empire in  India.  He did it by rallying the forces immediately around him to repel the invasion of the forces of Alexander the Great from the area now known as the Hindu Kush, and then by turning those forces loose in the chaos of an unified India in order to unify it as much as possible.

In other words, Chandragupta Maurya was a man for whom aggressive war was a vocation.  He invaded the petty principalities and largely incoherent small societies around them and hammered them into a whole by force.  This was not necessarily, or even principally, a bad thing.  Throughtout most of human histor, progress has followed conquest, and Chandragupta brought a lot of progress to India.

Megasthenes, on the other hand, seems to be the earliest known example of the Westerner who glorifies any civilization at the expense of his own.   He also seems to be the first to ascribe nonviolence and lack of aggression to another society in order to castigate his own for its addiction to violence.

And that makes him, of course, the first example of a Westerner who, gloifying such a society, is unable to see it as it really is.

I don’t know.  Maybe if we had the entirety of Megasthenes’s book, it would differ significantly in overall content than the quotations we have seem to indicate.  Maybe we would even find the quotations are wrong.

But the quotations we do have are from ancient sources themselves.  They predate the arrival of “leftism” and Marxism by millennia.  That brings up the question of what it is about us that we seem to need to downgrade the society of which we are a part and to idealize “foreign” ones. 

I don’t know enough about Indian or Asian literature to be able to speak for myself, but I’ve got it on the authority of writers I trust that this is a peculiarity of  Western civilization found either not at all, or only very marginally, in any other. 

And, like the spread of Chandragupta’s empire, this isn’t necessarily all bad.  In a way, it’s merely an extreme form of the openness to new ideas and nontraditional ways of thinking that has given us the science we all take for granted these days.

That said, it’s a really odd character trait, and it has its downsides.  For one thing, the danger always exists that such an attitude will cause Western civilization to lose respect for itself and what it does right.  That’s something we can see now throughout Western Europe, and to a lesser extent in the Anglophone countries.  We can certainly see it in textbooks and books for children, which go overboard to praise and glorify other cultures and spend most of their time criticizing this one, often in ways that are ahistorical and tendentious in the extreme.

But the other danger here is that such hagiographical visions of other cultures tend to make it seem that things are possible that are not–that, for instance, an empire can be built without resort to aggressive war.

Think of a man walking down a deserted street late at night.  He sees another man suddenly coming at him with knife drawn. If we understand that this is a case of kill or be killed, then we don’t castigate the first man for killing his assailane, or for carrying a gun in case such an eventuality should arise.

If we believe, however, that the violent assault could have been deflected, and the assailant disarmed, by he first man’s use of rational argument, or song and dance, or prayer, then the resort to violence and the carrying of a weapon look morally indefensible. 

This is a very old issue, and it’s being played out right now, between the people who think that we can rely on diplomacy alone to protect us and those who think that only force will sufice, because weakness is provocative and appeasement never works.

We are a civilization split between those people who believe in noble savages and those who think savages are never more than savages after all, and we were that way centuries before anybody had ever heard of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

And I don’t know if there’s any cure for it, either.  Megasthenes was the representative of what was then the greatest civilization ever to have appeared on earth.  In terms of art, science, philosophy and law, it far outshone anything Chandragupta could provide.  Indeed, Chandragupta’s inspiration ws Greek, the civilization he wanted to build was inspired by the Greeks.

The Greeks, on the other hand–or one of them, at any rate–couldn’t wait to worship at the altar of the new, the different, and the not-like-me.

I’m having a pretty much all-India week-end this week-end, for the hell of it mostly.  If you’ve never tried any of the films coming out of Bollywood, I suggest you give a couple a try.

My favorite one, at the moment, is a little thing called Lage Munna Bhai.

It’s light, but not silly.  The musical production numbers–a big deal in Indian movies–are kept unobtrusive and strictly to the minimum.

And watching the ghost of Gandhi–well, no, I won’t give it away.

Written by janeh

April 24th, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Need To Know Basis

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Before I get really started here, I’d like to pint out  a few things.

Phyiscs is a liberal arts subject.

Chemistry is a liberal arts subject.

Biology is a liberal arts subject.

Mathematics is a liberal arts subject.

The liberal arts come in three divisions:  natural sciences, social scienes, and humanities.

I’m pretty sure that what John was trying to do was to compare the natural sciences with the HUMANITIES.

Okay, now I’m shouting.

But this makes me nuts.  I don’t know when people started using “liberal arts” to mean the Humanities alone, but that’s not what the liberal arts are. 

Maybe I wouldn’t get so crazy about this if it wasn’t for the fact that it always seems to end with  John’s question.

To quote verbatim, John says, “I do know what happened on Dec 7, 1941 but is it necessary for students to know that?”

The answer is:  Yes.

In fact, students not only need to know that, they need to know it far more than they need to know any of the science, even if they’re intending to be scientists.

The intellectual, cultural, and political history of human life on this planet is the record of a vast real-life experiment in the consequences of ideas.

If we know the content of those three histories and can put that content in sequential order–that’s why the dates–we can see what the results of certain policies and assumptions have been. 

That gives us at least some basis for deciding on what we want our next policies to be, and on what assumptions we want to encourage our societies to adopt.

And these decisions are not academic.

Go out and listen to any public debate on abortion in this country, or any  apologia for euthanasia or “physician assited suicide.” 

Virtually all the arguments in favor of these policies that you can find come out of a particular German philosophic tradition that starts with Hegel and hasn’t ended yet.  All those arguments are made vigorously in Mein Kampf, and were a vital part of the social assumptions underlying not only the Holocaust but half the history of the Soviet Union and various other interesting experiments in social engineering, although on a smaller scale.

This is not a negligible fact.  There is something about this set of assumptions–this way of thinking about human beings–that leads to places we really don’t want to go.

But if you don’t know that those ideas were already tried and their consequences witnessed and examined, they don’t sound,. read naked and outside the context of their history, as if they’re going to end you up in that particular place.

It’s as if we had a huge board full of standing dominoes.  We push over Domino Number 3 on our side of the board, fully expecting it to topple a line of dominoes that will end at  Domino 527.  Instead, as we watch, the line suddenly veers to the right and we end at Domino 761 instead.

Progress–and there is progress; think of antibiotics and vaccines and the end of human slavery–requires time, talent, and the right intellectual conditions.   It’s not an accident that experimental science rose first in the West and nowhere else, or that no culture has yet been able to succeed scientifically except insofar as it is willing to adopt central Western philosophical ideas–like the sanctity of free inquiry and freedom of the press, the importance of telling the truth over protecting cultural icons and traditions, the primacy of the individual over the family, the Church, the state.

If you want to be able to go on doing physics, you’d better hope to hell my kids know when Pearl Harbor happened and why it happened and what it meant.  In fact, you ought to hpe that even if all you want is to be spared the “help” of some nurse who decides that anybody who is as old and sick as you are would want to die, if they were just being rational about it.

Peter Singer is not an aberration.  He is the inevitable outcome of a certain process of thought.  Ideas not only have consequences, they have very specific consequences.  Peter Singer sits in an endowed chair in bioethics because not enough people know those things the Humanities contain.

I agree that the Humanities are taught very badly these days.  Their substantive content is not hierarchical,  but it does exhibit clear lines of sequential progression, and understanding those progressions–how you get from Hegel to  Marx to both  Hitler and Stalin; how the Christian emphasis of the infinite importance of each individual soul led to John Locke, Adam Smith and the liberal democratic state (in the classical sense–as in favor of democracy over monarchy and limited government)–is vital to understanding and evaluating what’s going on now.

Science exists within the context of intellectual history.  It is not outside it, and it is not superior to it.   It needs very particular cultural conditions to exist at all, and those conditions are always fragile. 

So, yeah.  A students needs to know what Pearl Harbor was, and when it was, and why it happened.  He needs to know a lot more than that.

Science is nice, but it’s essentially secondary.  If we don’t do th is first and most basically, science will cease to exist at all.

So  I didn’t think it was negligible when one of my students said to another yesterday, “Oh, no, the answer can’t be B.  The Black Plague didn’t happen in the 1950s.  It was really ancient, like the 1700s.”

Although that wasn’t my favoite comment from the day.

That goes to the conversation between two young women, trying to puzzle out the answer when asked to identify Jackie Robinson.

“Okay,” one of them said.  “We can rule out this–girls don’t play hockey.”

Written by janeh

April 23rd, 2009 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Literacy Quiz Day

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I talked about this thing I do a few months ago–the Literacy Quiz, one hundred items in multiple choice format just to see if my kids can understand their textbook.  All the items are referenced in their textbook by writers who simply assume they’ll know what the reference is about.

Which brings me to an issue that’s come up once or twice, and that’s the tendency, or not, of writers to include references to cultural, political, and topical ideas in their work.  It was Robert, I think, who said that a writer who does too much of that was going to end up being incomprehensible.

And, of course, there are examples of writers whose allusions are so dense they’re nearly unreadable on any normal level–think of Joyce’s Ulysses, never mind Finnegan’s Wake.

Evem so, there’s really no way to write well without making allusions.  All writers assume they share a common culture with their readers.  That common culture can be “high,” as in the tradition of great poetry and/or music and/or philosophy across the ages, or popular, as in the scope of sitcoms over the last few years, but whatever it is, common culture is the key both to writing well and to reading well.

It’s also the key to decent stand up.

Most of us who think that what we read with without allusions are actually reading work in which we “get” all the allusions, so that the writing seems entirely transparent. 

Anyway, I’m sitting up here while my students are out there complaining, mostly about how I’m making them feel dumb.  It’s one of the great sins of modern education that you should ever make students feel dumb, and here I am, actually insisting that reasonable people know what happened on December 7, 1941.

But it also occurs to me that teachers have become so inured to the fact that students don’t know anything–and I mean it, they don’t know anything–that they increasingly construct assignments in such a way as to skirt the problems caused by lack of cultural context.

Which is how I keep running into kids who know nothing and yet have higher grade point averages than classmates who know a lot.

Which brings me back to one of my recurent themes here–exactly what is it we think we’re doing when we say we’re educating people?

In my opinion, it’s far more important for students to have the kind of information I ask for on my test than it is for them to know how to write a standard compare-and-contrast essay.  Clean writing is an asset in anything you do, but the standard college essay is of use to nobody outside the standard college classroom. 

The vast majority of my kids want to do things–airplane mechanics, nursing, CAD–that do not properly require a college education at all, but they would be greatly advantaged if they could get some things (like what rights they have under the Constitution) straight.

Instead of teaching them those things, we’re spending our time trying to make them reproduce the fire paragraph architecture of a kind of writing they’ll never do again, and then beating their heads in if they don’t get the commas, semicolons and colons straight in MLA format documentation.

Okay, you can tell, I’m a little frustrated right now, and it definitely goes back to that thing I was talking about a couple of months ago–the priveleging of schools, so that if you go through one with “passing grades,” you’re automatically assumed to be “educated.”

As I write, there are at least five people in this room who have never heard of Plato, and more than that who have never heard of Oedipus.  I’ll guarantee you that the majority of them will decide that “Vienna” is a city in Italy with canals.

And it’s the beginning of a new administration, so I suppose I have to cut them some slack on the matter of government officials–but most of them won’t know who the Chieft Justice of SCOTUS is, either.

Okay, okay.  I’m bitching again, but I can’t help it.  There are a lot of ways to disseminate information.  It isn’t necessary that it should always be delivered in a classroom by a teacher.  I’ve got great hopes for things like movies with historical settings, television shows, comic books, music videos.

Most of my kids can’t really understand most music videos, though, for the same reason they can’t make their way through the literacy quiz.

It’s not just that they don’t know.

It’s that, when they run up against something they don’t know, they don’t bother to find out.

Or even understand that it’s something they should do.

Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

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Why Nothing You Want Is Still in Print…and Other Things.

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Robert wrote me a long e-mail about the state of publishing, and although I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing here, I do want to address some of the points, which happen to be points that keep coming up.

First, as to the old saw that there are only about 200 people who write full time for a living in the US, my guess is that present-day numbers are no larger, and may actually be smaller.  Outside of the movies, what you get paid for writing has actually gone done over the last fifty years, adjusted for inflation.  Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was paying about five cents a word in the 1950s and it was still paying about five cents a word last time I checked, which was towards the end of the 1980s.  That’s a huge drop in real realized income from stories.

My first advance for a book was $5000.  A former student of mine sold her first novel last week and was offered…$5000.  And it’s been twenty five years.

As for royalties from older books–they come to checks in the double digits, at best.  Until Robert said so, I didn’t even know that Sweet Savage Death was still in print.  It’s been over a decade since I got a statement.

Second, as to the fact that books seem to go out of print faster than they used to–well, they do, and you can thank Ronald Reagan.  It was the Reagan reform of the tax code that changed the way in which publishers were allowed to “count” the unsold books in their warehouses.  Where it had always been the policy that such books were counted as having zero worth until they were sold, the system was changed so that the books had to be counted assets to the full amount the publisher would receive if they were in fact sold.

It used to be a publisher could hold onto hundreds of copies of a book and let them sell slowly over time.  Now, doing that brings a big tax bill, so books are hustled out of the warehouse as soon as possible.  Almost all books these days are remaindered within five years of publication, and as for holding onto copies in case an audience builds slowly–it is no longer financially feasible to do it. 

If you wanted to do a single thing most likely to help publishing in the US, and most likely to help writers, it would be to return publishers to the accounting rules they had before Reagan.

Third, as to proofreaders–well, first, distinguish between proofreaders and copyeditors and regular editors.

Proofreaders check spelling, punctuation and format–that’s it.  And even so, publishing employs fewer of them every year, and the ones it does employ tend to be freelance and temp. 

Copyeditors are the ones charged with making sure the continuity works and doing a last-minute fact check.  It’s actually the editor’s job, but once it gets past his desk, it’s the copyeditor who is supposed to catch the fact that the author has placed the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1944. 

That said, copyeditors come in good, bad and worse and they can’t know everything.  The worse are the ones who have decided that mysteries are “just” mysteries, so if the author seems to be doing something “literary,” he can’t really be doing that, so we’ll reword the whole passage so that it’s “standard.”  Dealing with one of these people will give you a migraine for a week, and any errors of fact are likely to go uncaught while you argue with her over whether a dream sequence can be written in stream of consciousness when it’s “just a mystery” you’re writing.

But the worst of the worst are the ones who are convinced they know something when they don’t.  It’s Katharine Hepburn, with two As in the first name–and I haven’t gotten that into print yet.  Copyeditors always change it.  Or take the “chaise longue.”  LONGUE.  Not “lounge.”  I’ve almost given up using the term.  I hate the fights.

A legendary editor at Bantam Books once called their copyediting department and declared, “If you’d ever met a Cardinal Archbishop, you’d understand why we capitalize a Cardinal Archbishop.”  This over a manuscript in which the copyeditor had managed to lowercase the Pope.

But you get what you pay for, and publishers are not willing to pay for copyediting and proofreading services. The ‘departments’ usually consist of one person who farms out the work to freelancers, who are badly paid, get no benefits, and haven’t got a hope in hell of landing a full time job with a chance at promotion.

You’re not going to get first rate talent with a deal like that.

As for whether publishers are publishing enough of what people want to read–well, different people want to read different things. Robert likes “continued novels,” and they don’t do anything for me.  If publishers published more of them, Robert would buy more books, but I wouldn’t.

But the numbers problem is far more basic.  There are 300,000,000 people in the US.  That’s twice as many as were here the year I was born, when books sold in higher numbers than they do now.  With 300,000,000 people, it ought to be possible to find ten thousand readers for anything at all.  They’ve got to be out there.

I know that attitude Lymaree was talking about.  I’ve had students like that–you’re not going to get me to read a book, almost as if I’d suggested capital punishment.

And it can’t simply be that they didn’t like what their English teachers assigned in high school.  The offerings were just as restricted–even more so–in the Thirties, and yet more people became lifelong readers. 

Hell, my father wasn’t assigned any novels at all–he got Homer, some patriotic poetry, Shakespeare, and then he was dumped on his own to discover fiction for himself.

He did.

Written by janeh

April 21st, 2009 at 11:56 am

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Defining Your Terms

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One of the things I learned from Ayn Rand–yes, yes; you can learn things from Ayn  Rand–and later had pounded into me in a number of college courses is that the first step in making any argument is to define your terms.

I bring this up because I’m just now finishing Johnson’s Intellectuals, and I’ve come to a point where  he ges explicit about how he is defining the term that makes up his title.

For Johnson, an intellectual is somebody who

1) works with words and ideas  AND

2) thinks ideas are more important than (actual, living) people AND

3) has millenarian/utopian ambitions to “fix” the world once and for all.

For me, only the first requirement is part of the definition of “intellectual.”  The next two are side issues relevant only to particular intellectuals.

But for Johnson, someone who satisfies the first part above but not the second or third is a ‘man (or woman, I presume) of letters,” and not an intellectual at all.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to scream–sort of like Rand’s own redefinition of “selfishness” so that a mother who sacrifices herself for her beloved child is “selfish” while a person who buys a lot of expensive clothes so that other people will think well of him is “unselfish”–but in this case it made possible the inclusion of a chapter on a man who was not a writer, but who interests me more than most writers do.

That man is Victor Gollancz, and the only reason I know who he is is that Bill and I moved to London for the first time in 1984, at the ery tail end of the famous Gollancz editions of British mystery novels. It was hard to ignore yard after yard of bookstore shelf space taken up by cheap hardbacks with violently yellow covers.

Gollancz was a publisher, and the man who turned both Dorothy  L. Sayers and  Daphne  du Maurier into best sellers.  There’s a good case to be made that without him, there would have been no golden age of the British mystery.  Before  Gollancz figured out how to package and sell detective novels to a truly mass audience, they were largely the guilty pleasures of the same educated classes who liked to sneer at them in print. 

Gollancz was also an example of that single operator–a publishing version of Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer–who could make his own independent decisions about what was worth putting out there and take his own risks.

And the result of that was a lot of really good mystery fiction, including a lot of really innovative mystery fiction, and that in an era when “thinking outside the box”–I hate that phrase, am I the only one who hates that phrase?–wasn’t exactly prized.

Gollancz is included in Johnson’s book because of his other activities as a publisher–his role in popularizing the ideas of the British Communist Party, for instance–but let me look for a minute here at something more basic.

It’s certainly true that these guys, in publishing and movies, brought us better and more interesting books and movies than today’s corporate behemoths can usually manage.  That’s because the Harvard  Business  School was wrong,  It’s not true that any manager can manage any business.  Businesses are  better run when they’re run by people who understand them.

At the same time, almost all these guys, in movies or in publishing, were autocratic nutcases, who abused both their ordinary employees and their talent lists and thought the first item in any cost-cutting plan should be their writers.   For every Max Perkins who saw his writers through drinking bouts, posted their bail and paid their rent, there are two  Victor Gollanczes, who didn’t like paying advances or royalties at all, tried to get writers to accept handshake deals the terms of which he “remembered” differently later, and tried to refuse to work with agents (who wouldn’t put up with that crap).

I’m not really going anywhere with this–although it seems to me that my general impression that large successes tend to be so heavily driven that they end up behaving as jerks does apply–but the more I look at book publishing, the more it seems to me that it’s ended up trying to operate on a set of asumptions that is not true.

The first of those assumptions is that there’s anything at all like a “mass audience” for books.  Every once in a while a book or a writer comes along to make it seem like their might be–J.K. Rowling, for instance, or The  Da Vinci Code–but even there, a look at the numbers makes it clear that these writers sell to a minority, just a slightly different minority than other writers. 

A writer like Rowling or Stephen King will ship 850,000 copies hardcover and sell most of them and be considered a publishing industry hero.  A movie that old only 850,000 tickets the first week would hit the second-run theaters the next.  

And yet the imperatives of the market are clear, for writers as well as for publishers.   If nobody can sell enough books to eat, or make a modest but respectable profit, then this particular human activity is functionally dead.   It may be kept alive in the way contemporary poetry is–tiny little runs of “chapbooks” that sell only to the cognescenti who attend readings at self-consciously “in the know” independent stores–but that’s almost deader than dead.

Your run of the mill  “popular”  hardcover novel in this country now sells between 2,000 and 6,000 copies.  If you sell 11,000, you become something of a hot ticket.   Those numbers are not only abysmal, they’re scary.

And I’m not talking about “literary” fiction.  Those are pretty much the numbers for mystery novels of all sorts.  And the paperback numbers, mass market or trade, aren’t much better.

And mysteries are high on the totem pole among literary genres.  They do much better than most science fiction and fantasy.  And Westerns are just gone.

It’s true enough that the publishing industry has absolutely no clue about what constitutes an effective sales pitch for their products, but I still think something else has to be going on here.

It’s nice to fantasize about small presses bringing back real books, but small presses have even more abysmal sales numbers than the big houses do, and the bottom line is this:  if writers can no longer make a living writing, we’ll get less of it. 

And a lot of what we get will be the work of people born with money, who don’t have to care.  Which is not good news.

Victor Gollancz turned detective n ovels into best sellers by putting them all out in those uniform yellow covers, keeping the prices WAY down, and going in for sensationalist publicity of a type we tend to associate with the publicists of alcoholic starlets.

I suppose that’s probably not the answer these days, but I keep hoping there’s something.

Written by janeh

April 20th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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