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Archive for August, 2010

Expert Bullying

with 2 comments

Well, of course, JD is right–I meant to say that sensible regulation can decrease the frequency of large market corrections by insisting on prudence in at least some areas. 

And this morning, my mind is generally on the necessity of having somebody make decisions for you when you cannot.  I know it’s necessary, and since my father died–and made a mess of nearly everything in staying himself, and largely singular, all the way through it–I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make sure my children and a couple of close friends have all the access and authorization they need if anything happens to me.

But being that person for my mother is awful, and I don’t even have all that many decisions to make at this point.

But, that said–

I don’t have a problem with what science can convince the masses to do.

I have a problem with scientists and others going, “I’m right, and your ignornant, so no matter what you want, we’re going to make you do what I want you to do.”

The old saying is experts should be on tap, not on top–they should give advice, and the rest of us should decide whether to take it or not.

That’s especially true of individuals and individual lives and behavior, and it’s precisely in those areas where experts seem to be increasingly on top.

In schools, in social service departments, even in workplaces sometimes, rules about private life are put in place and enforced without even a nod to the consent of the governed. 

Parents often have to fight long and hard against an educational and social work establishment bent on imposing expert advice on their families even when the parents object.

That’s what happened with Ritalin in the state of Connecticut back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when parents were threatened with having their children placed in foster care if they didn’t agree to drug them for their “ADHD.”

I put the acronym in quotes for good reason.  There is in fact no biological evidence that the “disorder” even exists, and most of the kids “diagnosed” with it were boys who wouldn’t sit still and do what they were told in a heavily feminized environment that virtually no other country expects their boys to tolerate.

(In Japan, the need of boys for frequent and vigorous physical evidence is taken so for granted that classes in elementary schools break every forty minutes to give them a chance to run around.)

What’s more, virtually everything claimed for Ritalin was false–it did in fact work exactly the same on all children, not just with those with ADHD; and there was no way to tell if it was “safe.” 

In fact, it will be another twenty to forty years before we know what the effects of all that Ritalin have been on the development and long term health of the children subjected to it.

If state legislators had tried to pass laws saying that parents would be guilty of “neglect” if they refused to put their children on Ritalin, such laws would never have passed.  The masses did not, in fact, agree to any such thing.

It wasn’t the masses, but the experts, and their surrogates in the helping professions, who decided to impose that regime on Connecticut families–we’re the experts, we know better than you, if you won’t take our advice we have the right to force it on you.

It took several law suits to bring an end to this nonsense, and the lawsuits were filed by relatively wealthy families on the Gold Coast.  If this particular expert bullying had fallen only on poor families, the chances are that it would still be with us.

In fact, there’s lots of expert bullying that is imposed on poor families, often for decades, without correction.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book is about the increasing refusal of Americans to defer to scientific opinion–getting “the masses” to agree when they won’t is their entire point.

“The sky is falling,!”  they moan.  “People no longer think we’re right all the time!”

Yes, well.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum pine for the day when science was held in high esteen and Americans took scientific pronouncements as facts just because scientists made them.

That wasn’t going to last past the point when governments and agencies decided that if it was science, it circumvented the democratic process.

And, in spite of Hofstadter, and Mooney and Kirshenbaun, and even Susan Jacoby–that refusal to bow to experts just because they’re experts is the good news.

Even if if sometimes results in mistaken judgments.

Written by janeh

August 18th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

End Notes

with 5 comments

So–the book is finished, and went off, via e-mail, yesterday.  You have no idea how much I love the fact that I no longer have to send hard copies.  Printing a book out always seemed to me like a gigantic, counterproductive pain in the butt.  And doing revisions on a hard copy was worse.

But it’s gone, and that means I’m slightly less crazed, if only slightly.

And I’ve been reading while I’ve been working, with two nonfiction books (both short) eating up the last days, so…

I have something to say.

Well, of course I do.

First, the books.

One was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  The other was Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America:  How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

Okay, not exactly heavy–or intellectually respectable–reading, I’ll agree, but I like this sort of thing sometimes.  And I like it on all ends of the political spectrum.

Wendy Kaminer, one of my favorite political writers ever, wrote a book a few years ago called I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, which took the therapeutic culture about at the joints in about two hundred pages.  Ehrenreich herself wrote a book a few years ago, called Bait and Switch, that, although I had issues with some of its content, contained some absolutely hilarious reporting on corporate pep-rally, attitude-training techniques.

There are lots of people out there with ideas on how we should have been able to see this latest financial crisis coming, but for me, the absolute base line, the place where we all should have gotten it, was when we found out that enormous, multinational corporations thought putting their midlevel employees through three days of “training” in “visualizing success” was going to help their bottom lines.

We should have especially known this when we found out what this kind of thing costs.

That having been said, of the two books I mentioned all the way up above, the Ehrenreich was definitely better, if only because it was substationally less clueless.

So, as I said, a few points:

1) Both Ehrenreich and Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the same mistake a lot of other writers on the dumbing down of America make–they talk about Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as if it were a book about how Americans hate smart people.

I wish it were a book about how Americans hate smart people–I’d read that book; someday I may write that book–but it isn’t. 

What it is is a book about American resistance to taking the advice of experts, and especially of accepting that advice as the basis for law. 

That is, obviously, a very different question, and one which requires a much more complicated answer than “well, they must hate smart people.  Americans worship dumbness.”

That said, it’s too bad that Mooney and Kirshenbaum got it wrong.  Their book is indeed a fretting about people who won’t take the advice of experts as a basis for social policy.

2) Mooney and Kirshenbaum do that thing with the surveys about Creationism.  That is, it’s documented that if you asked people if they agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” about 40% of them will say yes.

This finding is fairly consistant over time, and it’s used by just about everybody to “prove” that Americans are a bunch of Creationist nutcases who don’t know anything about science and who cling to primitive forms of religious superstition like pre-Scientific Revolution savages.

The problem with it is that it doesn’t bother to take into account something else we know.

If Americans are given that statement–“God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” and also a bunch of other statements, and then are allowed to pick more than one, they tend to also pick “human beings and other primates evolved from a common ancestor over hundreds of thousands of years,” or other statements to that effect.

When writers like Mooney and Kirshenbaum stumbled over this piece of evidence, they tend to produce long fulminations about how Americans “hold contradictory ideas.”

But I don’t think that’s the case.  I think that where the sociologists designing such a survey, and the mostly secular people who interpret it, see one question, many people answering it see two. 

There’s nothing inherently contractory about believing that human beings evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in their physical form, while God created the soul (and therefore made the beings “truly human”) much later than that.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in believing that our physical form evolved while our intellectual, ethical and spiritual form was somehow infused into that physical form at a later date in a single (and complete) act of God or something or somebody else.

It might be wrong, mind you, but it is not contradictory. 

And it makes me think that your ordinary American willing to put up with surveys like this is a lot more intellectually complex than the people who devise the surveys. 

3) Ehrenreich nearly bowled me over by declaring, about two thirds of the way through her book, that the 2007  financial meltdown “proved” once and for all that the market doesn’t correct itself.

Will somebody please tell this woman that the 2007 financial meltdown was the market correcting itself?

Saying that the market will correct itself is not the same thing as saying that the market will always be stable and nice and present no risk to anybody.

Quite the contrary.  Market corrections can be large or small, and if there’s a big distortion in the market they can be very large indeed. 

Regulation will not stop these corrections from happening, although they can decrease the intervals between large-scale ones if the regulations are sensible. 

What we do about such corrections is open to debate on many levels–my personal preference would be to insure the small depositors and let the big banks go bust.  I’m opposed to the entire concept of “too big to fail.”

The fear of failure–a situation where, if they screw up, they lose their money and their jobs and their institutions go out of business–is a better guarantor of prudence than any fine the government can come up with.

4) Mooney and Kirshenbaum spend parts of a couple of early chapters in their book bemoaning the effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1986 and the end of federal regulation of the broadcasting industry, which they claim has led to “lowest common denominator programming” and less “public service” broadcasting like “in depth” science news.

One of the things I’ve never understood about this kind of argument is this:  what makes these people think that even if government forced broadcasting stations to put this stuff on the air, people would watch it?

Unscientific America is a book largely disconnected from reality on almost every level, but this one occurs in other places too, and it just baffles me.

People who take this approach must believe one of two things:  either they think that people out here really want a lot of “in depth” science reporting (or hard news, or whatever) and they are being deprived of it by evil corporations who care for nothing but profit; OR they think that, deprived of celebrity news and endless reruns of Law and Order, if there was nothing else to watch on television but the programming they want, people would sit down and watch it rather than do something else.

Neither of these positions make any sense whatsoever.

If there really was a big public market for the kind of science news Mooney and Kirshenbaum want, there would be plenty of science programming out there to fill it.

I’m the first to point out that the problem with large corporations running media is that they need a higher cost-benefit ratio than most media endeavors can provide, but there’s a lot out there besides the large corporations and some of it is, indeed providing in depth science programming.

The problem is not that evil corporations are going for lowest common denominator programming and not providing American viewers and readers and Internet surfers what they want.

The problem is that not many Americans what want Mooney and Kirshenbaum want them to want. 

And they implicitly recognize this when they point out that, given the Internet, with lots of real science on it, people tend to search out only that “information” that gives them what they want to hear. 

As for watching whatever’s on–no, people really don’t do that.  If they sit down in front of the television set and can’t find anything they want to see, they put in a DVD or go out to the movies. 

You can’t force people to pay attention to what you want them to pay attention to.

5) And the final thing, the thing that keeps me rolling my eyes as I plow through Unscientific America, is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum really do not understand where the line is drawn between science and policy.

Assuming that everything we’ve been told about climate change is true, all that means is that the earth is warming up and the warming up will cause a certain set of problems.

The science does not tell us that we should have an intergovernmental regulatory office to police carbon emissions, or even that we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Those are policy issues and they are decided by more facts than the ones science can give us. 

What effect, for instance, would such an intergovernmental regulatory agency have on national sovereignty overall, and what effect would that effect have on things like the right to free expression, or freedom of religion, or even gay marriage?

If such an intergovernmental regulatory agency would result in a situation where, say, the UN’s new rule forbidding the denigration of religion were to be imposed on New York, maybe I’d like to have a different approach to dealing with climate change–finding ways to accommodate to it, for instance, in order to keep my basic individual rights from being violated.

It’s instructive that Mooney and Kirshenbaum do not seem to know that such a discussion exists. In the world as they’ve defined it, there are “global warming deniers” and “scientists,” and the “global warming deniers” are…well, maybe they’re evil corporations again, caring for nothing but short term profit. 

If Mooney and Kirshenbaum want to know why so manyAmericans resist the expertise of scientists, the first thing they need to understand is that thing up there about the difference between science and policy. 

And to do that, they need to understand that given problem A, there may be many different approaches to dealing with it, no just the one they think is so obvious that it must be self evident.

Hofstadter was right.  Americans mightily resist government by expert.

They know, although the experts don’t seem to, that different people have different priorities, and the foundation of a democratic society is the principle that every citizen is fully competent to define his own.


Written by janeh

August 17th, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Contradicting the Law of Noncontradiction

with 5 comments

So, here’s the thing.

I’m almost finished with this book. My guess is two to three more days.  And I’m at that place where I’m getting panicked that I’m not going to be able to clean it all up in time–that I’ll leave out explanations that have to be made, and all the rest of it. 

So I am, as I have been, a little distracted.

I’m also still unfamiliar with the word processing program I’m using, so I don’t know what I need to to get some stuff done.

If anybody out there uses Open Office, I’d like to know if there’s a feature that lets you access any page in your manuscript.  On WordPerfect, if you pressed Control+G, you got a window that let you punch in a page number and then it took you directly to that page.

If it’s possible to do that with this, I can’t figure out how.  And that makes certain kinds of revisions really difficult.

That said, I thought I’d pass this along from my meeting the other day, maybe just because it’s so typical it makes my teeth hurt.

The meeting itself was short and not too bad, but when we had a bit of a break, I looked through our new textbook.

Early on, it had one of those sections where it exhorted students not to use “racist or sexist language” and not to indulge in “stereotypes.”

And that was okay, I guess.  It’s the usual sort of thing for textbooks in this era.


As I continued to page through the thing, I would find each kind of “communication” first outlined, and then discussed in terms of “culture” and “gender.”

And the “gender” sections always said things like, “women are more likely than men to seek to shore up relationships through communication” and “men are more likely to be direct and aggressive.”

The references for this stuff all seemed to be to pop psych and pop sociology–Deborah Tannen, for instance, and that Mars and Venus nonsense–and they could have come straight out of a discussion of the “nature”of men and women from around 1945.

Oh, and by the way.

If these things have any validity at all–I’m a man.

But on top of that, the “culture” sections were hysterical too, because the book nearly tied itself in knots not to say what it wanted to say, which was that if you’re doing business internationally with Muslim nations, most of them will not accept women on a negotiating team and will most definitely not accept a woman as the head of such a team.

So we’re supposed to avoid sexist stereotypes at the same time we embrace them, and commit to giving equal rights and dignity to all people no matter what their race or sex while at the same time respecting all cultures including those that emphatically deny people rights and dignity on the basis of race and sex.

By the time it was over, my head hurt.

I’m going to go listen to music.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2010 at 7:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Well, I’m in for a meeting, so I’m a little distracted.  But I do want to point out that I was talking about nonfiction essays and articles yesterday, not about fiction or “creative writing.”

And I agree–the “process” is not entirely stupid, especially for kids who have no ear and never will.  It provides a method to make written work possible.

But I don’t think it does what we all want a composition class to do, because it does not address context, and it does not address thinking. 

With context, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the cause is nearly hopeless.  I’ve been thinking, recently, that we should ditch most versions of the Canon and instead require students to know two areas of the Humanities:  the classical world (Greece and Rome) and (for the US) the American.

It’s not as cut and dried as it seems, of course.  It’s almost impossible to understand the American founding without understanding the English/Scottish Enlightenment, with Milton’s Aereopagetica and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government holding pride of place in the intellectual history that led to the Bill of Rights.

But that could be accommodated, and those two specific areas would present the history of ideas that is distinctly and uniquely Western. 

And yes, of course, in the long run we need to know a broader range of knowledge.  But in the end, we must know these things first, both because they belong to us and make us what we are, and because if we don’t understand them and don’t understand that they are not general in the world at large, we’re going to lose them.

W.H. Auden was once asked what children should learn in school, and he said that it didn’t matter, as long as they all learned the same thing.

I think it does matter, but I get the part about all learning the same thing.  We ought to try to make a curriculum general, so that there is some kind of shared common culture.

Of course, there already is one, made of television and movies and video games, but I was hoping for something longer lasting than that.

As for the thinking–well.  I’m in here for a meeting.

Thinking is about to be on display.

God help me.

Written by janeh

August 12th, 2010 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Process Analysis

with 8 comments

Maybe the first thing I ought to do is to make a distinction.  There are different kinds of writing well. 

Writing really well is of course a talent, and people either have it or they don’t.  You can train your voice forever and never reach the quality necessary to sing at the Met, even if you’re not tone deaf.

But as long as you’re not tone deaf, I can teach you most of the basics of carrying a tune and singing in harmony with other people. Those are skills that, barring a basic disability (like tone deafness), are available to everyone.

What composition courses these days concentrate on is what’s called “writing as a process,” and it’s not a totally stupid idea, as far as it goes.

It sets out the steps of the process–brainstorming, researching, outlining, drafts–and then insists that students follow those steps with each and every paper.

It provides “sample essays” of each kind–compare and contrast, classification and division, exemplification, process analysis, description, narration, maybe more–and then has students write one of each kind using the process.

And, like I said, it isn’t a totally stupid idea.  A sstudent who can learn to follow this process will learn to produce an acceptable essay in terms of its overall organization, and will probably have cleaned up most of his grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.

By now, a number of you are probably sitting there wondering why I seem to be having trouble with this method.  And in some ways, I don’t have trouble with it.  I really can get standard five paragraph essays out of most of my students by the end of the term. 


What should probably be the least of my objections is this:  no professional writer I have ever heard of writes like this.   If you’re trying to produce something that zings and sizzles, this is a truly terrible way to write.

And I know myself well enough to know that if I had been required to write like this in school, I might never have written a word once I got out of it.

The process is laborious, boring, and stultifying.  Some of the terminology is precious and embarrassing (“brainstorming,” for instance, seems to mean “thinking really hard and concentrating”).   Some of the steps are not only unnecessary but can actually work against the production of really good and organically conceived pieces.

I’ve never outlined a single thing in my life–and I’m not the only writer of fiction who feels that writing outlines leaves you, at the end, with no great desire to write the book, because you’ve already written it.  Never mind sticking you in a straight jacket that you’ll find difficult to get out of when it turns out that some of your outline ideas don’t work.

But those particular criticisms, above, are the criticisms of someone who writes for a living, and someone who started writing at six.  I write when I’ve got deadlines.  I write when I don’t have deadlines.  I write because I write.  It’s as natural to me as breathing.

But most of our students do not write like this.  They don’t write at all.  So a process is a good idea, because with a process we can replace what I do naturally with something that will at least produce, at the end, something that is nominally coherent.


The process remains boring and stultifying, and it remains artificial.  It corresponds to nothing going on in the heads of the students working on the projects, whether they have an ear, have no ear, or are just sort of in the middle. 

It does not, and cannot, provide any kind of context for the writing, either, and context is at least as important as mechanics in what is going wrong here.

But the sheer monumental boredom of it, the incredible struggles it inevitably results in when the student is asked to write something for which the general contents have not been already provided, mean that most students leave composition so repulsed by “the process” that they avoid writing as much as they can as long as they can–

Almost always resulting in their doing any actual writing beyond deadline available, leading to writing things not only not according to the process but according to any process–

Leading to the messes they continually produce at work and at school in the aftermath of composition.

I think that what I’m trying to get at here is that the “process” doesn’t so much teach students to write as it provides a kind of intellectual machine to produce writing. 

And it does produce writing.  It just produces bad writing.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2010 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

So, the summer is winding down a little, and this book is finishing itself, and I thought that I would try, today, to answer a question from a friend of mine that I’ve been dancing around in my head now for several weeks.

The question is this: what would be the best course to take to teach somebody how to write?

In this case, what’s wanted is not just the mechanics (although those are important) as the ability to clearly state and develop and argument and/or an exposition.

And I’m sitting here writing this post about it today because it occurs to me that I don’t have an answer.  I don’t think anybody has an answer.  And that brings me to a couple of problems.

Because, obviously, composition can be taught.   None of us are born knowing how to write an essay, and some of us do learn. 

The same is true of rational thinking.  Most of us are not born knowing how to reason things true, knowing what a valid or invalid argument is,  but some of us learn.

And some of us, of course, don’t.  In fact, lots of us don’t.

And I find myself, when faced with a request for what would be the best course to teach someone, forced to admit that I don’t know of a single course or program that actually does the job.

Not one.

No composition course I have ever taught, or ever seen taught, has been able to consistently and predictably teach students to write better.  And none has been able to teach them to reason better–in fact, they do less well at reasoning than they do at writing.

The extent to which this is true is really staggering.  And I don’t think it’s true for any of the usually cited reasons.

At least on the college level–or the community college level–the disdain for grammar, punctuation and spelling that supposedly characterized Sixties English classroom is not in evidence. Every composition teacher I know, on every level, struggles mightily with the basics.

Maybe it’s just that we’re too late in the process, and all that had to be learned much earlier–but we have minimal success in instilling it now.

Nor is it always the case anymore that people entrusted with teaching composition were never trained to teach composition.

For a long time, courses in composition were taught by people with degrees in English literature, which meant that most of them knew nothing at all about how to teach writing.   They had not been taught how to write.  They’d been taught how to explicate.

These days, however, there are actual PhDs in the teaching of composition, and more and more people being hired for English departments are being hired precisely because composition is what they’ve been trained in.

It’s only at the highest tier places that the people teaching Comp are still former “English majors” in the classical sense of the term.  And the highest tier places are the places with the least trouble with students who can’t write.

Of course, they’re no longer places with no trouble with students who can’t write, so there’s that.

No matter what their virtues, people who get degrees in teaching composition are almost always people who are good at composition, meaning that most of them are like me–they have no idea why they write well instead of badly.

Some of them remember something about the way they themselves were taught, and some of them find those methods wonderful, or awful, and respond accordingly.   I don’t remember a thing about the way I was “taught to write,” and my suspicion is that I wasn’t.  I don’t think anybody these days learns to write in a classroom.

Of course, there are some mechanical things that can be taught–the proper structure of the five paragraph essay, for instance–but when people complain that this new generation of graduates don’t know how to write, that’s not what they mean. 

And although the grammar, punctuation and spelling thing is increasingly urgent, that’s not what people mean, either.

They mean that these kids can’t think their way out of paper bags.

And that is where I find myself completely stumped. 

A hundred years ago–literally by now, I’d think–the English public schools taught their pupils to write by forcing them to copy out classic essays verbatim, and then marking them down for every mistake, no matter how small.

I have no idea if that taught anybody to write, or to think, but I do know that the several generations that were the product of that system gave us some of the most brilliant writers in the history of the English language.

Well, at least, the most brilliant in terms of nonfiction prose.

I don’t know if their more numerous compatriots were as good,  or even any better than our students and new hires.

The more I look around, the more strongly I believe that being able to think your way out of a paper bag is the exception, not the rule.  And it’s been the exception in virutally all eras of history that we can document at all.

Yes, at the top of the pyramid are those writers whose works are destined to be classics who do very well at it–and then there’s everybody else, indulging left and right in non sequiturs, ad hominems, circular arguments and all the rest of it.

Hell, I’ve started to think that the US has abandoned baseball for straw man arguments as the national game.

I get brought back, again and again, to the feeling that we’re going about this all wrong, that we have assumptions about education that do not accord with reality.

I think that it’s possible that we’re tryinjg to teach the wrong things, or trying to teach them in the right way.

And I’m still on that kick where I think that putting a bunch of people into classrooms with a teacher at the front may be the least effective way to teach anything at all.

Which is not the same thing as saying that I know how else to teach it, because I don’t.

What English departments do–or composition programs, if the university in question has abolished the English department–is to tell themselves that the kids have “learned” the “skills” necessary if they can pass the exit exam.

The rest of us have to deal with them when they’ve passed the exam and promptly forgotten everything they learned to pass it.

Which means, to me at any rate, that they never really learned it at all.

Okay, this is depressing.


Written by janeh

August 10th, 2010 at 9:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Plato, New

with 3 comments

So, let me see if I can write about something not so self absorbed this morning.  Not that it hasn’t been a long week-end and a long morning, because it has.  But.

What I’ve been reading the last few days is a book by Bruce Thornton called Greek Ways:  How the Greeks Created Western Civilization. Thornton is a classics professor at one of the state colleges in California.  I cannot, at the moment, remember which one.  He publishes essays on Victor Davis Hanson’s website, as well as other places.  Like Hanson, he’s an advocate of universal liberal education starting with a knowledge of Greek history and culture. 

The book is an interesting one in a number of ways.  For one thing, it’s an usual focus.  Thornton takes a number of particular issues which modern academics use to denigrate Greek culture and first explains the reality of them and then makes a case for why the Greeks should be applauded for their approach to these things, rather than castigated for them.

Well, okay, mostly he does that.  In the chapter on Greek homosexuality, he’s more concerned to explain exactly how it operated and therefore debunk popular ideas of a Greek gay paradise.

So far, I’ve read chapters on homosexuality, the status of women, slavery, and (I’m just at the beginning) war.

And I’ll probably talk about some of those and what this book says about them at some point, but right now, what’s got to me is a sort of side issue. 

A lot of us here (myself included) tend to talk about the differences between Plato and Aristotle as if they resided primarily in two places:  their understanding of politics, and their concern (or lack of it) for empirically-based observation and experiment in what we would now call the “sciences.”

The scare quotes are not because I think science doesn’t exist.  It’s because, to Aristotle and Plato, chemistry and biology and physics were all branches of philosophy, and the word “science” attached to any rational inquiry.  So ethics was a “science” in just the same way chemistry was, and both were also “philosophy.”  By the Middle Ages, theology would be called “the queen of the sciences,” and they meant the word.

But the problem with all this is this–for the Greeks, and the Romans, and the early fathers of the Christian Church, what was important about Plato was not his politics or his plan for a utopia.

In fact, Medieval thinkers didn’t have much use for either.  Plato lived in a democracy and posited an oligarchic totalitarian state.  Medieval thinkers widely assumed that the political organization ordained by God was monarchy, since the relationship between God and the human race was itself a form of monarchy. 

That impulse to monarchy is evident in the imagery that all Christians were taught to apply to Christ and his salvific mission.  He was “king of kings” and “lord of lords.”  He was not prime minister.

This radical difference in political approach and temperament is obvious in Augustine (see Civitas Dei), and for a long time it made me very confused when people would call Augustine a “neoPlatonist.”

No he isn’t, I’d think–he’s got nothing in common with Plato’s ideas about human society at all.  For one thing, Augustine would never have put up with a philosopher king.  No matter how attractive idea in the abstract, he knew too much about philosophers and too much about kings.  And he was especially convinced of the inability of men and women to perfect, on their own, a fallen human nature. 

Near the beginning of Thornton’s book, however, during a description of the nature and purpose of sexuality in classical Greek society, it suddenly hit me:  what made Augustine and most of the other Church fathers neoPlatonists was not their politics, but their epistemology.  They are neoPlatonists because of the way they define reality and the way they believe we perceive reality.

Think for a minute about the Platonic ideals, and the men watching shadows on the walls of the cave.

Men, Plato said, see only the shadows of the real world, which does not consist of the accidents and corruption all around us, but of ideal forms existing in eternity without decay or change.

Men, St. Paul said, as long as they live on this earth, see only “through a glass darkly.”  Reality is what lives with God in eternity.  Our bodies will rise with our souls on the last day, but they will be glorified bodies, not the weak, aging, decaying ones we have now. 

What Plato seems to have posited mostly as a metaphor, the early Christian Church seems to have accepted as fact.  What we see, what we live with, is temporary, fleeting and not-quite-real.  What awaits us in eternity is the real reality. 

Now we struggle against delusion and confusion, prey to animal appetites and to the ravages of change.  Then we will be as we always are, unchanging, eternal, and true to ourselves. 

To pass from this earth into Heaven–or even Hell–is to pass from Plato’s cave into Plato’s world of ideal forms, and there’s no metaphor going on whatsoever.

I’m getting that feeling again that I’m going around and aroung in circles, but the whole thing makes perfect sense, and is perfectly clear, in my own head.

Classical civilization passed into Christian civilization as a matter of evolution, not of conquest, because there was in Christian ideas so much that corresponded to classical ones. 

Some of the early Church fathers looked at classical Greece and Rome only in terms of the practices and customs of the age, and rejected them both.  I forgot who it was who demanded to know “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

In the end, though, the Church fathers whose influence really built the Church (and the civilization) we know knew exactly what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, and worked very hard to maintain the connection through centuries of wars, conquests, barbarian sacks, Islamic expansionism, and all the rest of it.

And, of course, eventually preserving both the good and the bad of the political thought, both the impetus to democracy and the impetus to totalitarianism.

But I find it interesting to contemplate the core idea of neoPlatonism, the idea that the life we live here is a “temporary home” (thank you, Carrie Underwood) whose reality will only be realized in eternity.

I don’t know how you could prove that–or disprove it–at all.

And I don’t know what the implications would be of holding such an idea, what it would do to the way you behaved.

But I think I’ll go have some tea and fight with nurses.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2010 at 9:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 10 comments

Well, it’s four o’clock in the morning on a Saturday–okay, closer to four thirty–and I’ve been up for hours.  I got my work done.  I’ve got a really huge cup of tea.  It’s business as usual, except that my mother is in the hospital again.

Okay.  That’s business as usual, too, at least in one sense–I only found out about it when I called the night nursing staff at her nursing home to check up on her.

I do that every night, and I also call almost every morning, too.  Just to check in.  Because they never tell me anything.

I’d called the night before last to be told that she was doing really well, responding more and more to the nurses when they talked to her, able to get up and sit in a chair for a while every day.  In other words, doing a lot better than she had been doing.

Yesterday morning, I wasn’t able to call.  We had a ton of things to do and there wasn’t a place in the day that was also a place in the nursing staff’s day.

So I waited and called at eight thirty. 

And not only had they not called to tell me she was in the hospital, but the nurse I talked to when I called last night almost didn’t tell me either.  At first, she just said that my mother’s regular night nurse wasn’t in that evening.

Telling me about the hospital was a sort of side remark, almost an afterthought.

A good friend of mine says that this kind of thing is not unusual at nursing homes, that nursing homes resist communicating with the families of patients.

I’ve got no idea why that might be so.  The whole thing seems crazy to me, and the longer my mother is sick the crazier it gets.

The last time she was admitted to the hospital, her doctor had no record of her having any living children at all, and the hospital listed her family contact as my brother, who died in 2006.

In the meantime, she’s got a court appointed guardian–the only way the nursing home would keep her after my father died, unless I could move down there permanently, which I couldn’t–and he never contacted me or returned a single one of my phone calls for four solid years until about a month ago, when my mother was first admitted to the hospital.

Then he waited for nearly two days to tell me that my mother was in the hospital, answered maybe two e-mails once I finally got hold of his e-mail address, and has now disappeared into the mist, again. 

This entire system seems completely out of whack to me. 

And I’m tired.

Written by janeh

August 7th, 2010 at 4:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Jury Duty

with 6 comments


Somebody posted to the comments that I should go to jury duty and report.  And I did.  Go to jury duty, that is. 

So here’s the report.

First, you have to understand that I really and truly hate the parking situation at and around the Superior Court.  I’m not interested in parking in the municipal garage half a mile away–and the one place I’ve ever been mugged.  I’ve lived in New York, London, Paris and Detroit, and I got mugged in Connecticut.

I’m also not much interested in parking on the street, where you get forty five minutes and then have to run down from the jury waiting room to plug in quarters again.

So I got my friend Carol to drop me off on her way to work, and my friend Richard to pick me up.  And yes, these are the same Carol and Richard who appear in my acknowledgements pages over and over again because they keep saving my ass in all sorts of ways, and the ones who saved the manuscript of Hardscrabble Road when a virus ate my hard drive.

At any rate, Carol drove me in and dropped me at the Superior Court just before eight thirty.  I signed in and took a seat, and I will admit I was rather surprised at how few people were in the waiting room.   I’m willing to bet there weren’t twenty of us all told.  I know there weren’t as many as thirty.

The fact nagged at me a little, but not as much as it might have, because there was a new wrinkle this time–they let us keep our cell phones.  They used to confiscate them.  They don’t any more. 

So, I had e-mail to check, and lots of the people around me were playing games on their Blackberries.

Then the Clerk of the Court came up and turned the television off–I forgot to mention that this place has the single largest flat screen TV I’ve ever seen so that potential jurors can watch the news while they wait–

Anyway, she turned it off and played a half-hour video tape of instructions on What It Means To Be A Juror.   I’ve seen this video every single time I’ve been on jury duty in Connecticut, which is well over fifteen years now, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what it said.  I watched anyway, because I didn’t want this woman to decide nobody was paying attention and she had to run it again.

When the tape was over, the Clerk came back, turned off the television set again, and said, “You’re considered to have done your jury duty if you’re here as long as I need you.  If I don’t need you any more and you’re sent home, then you’ve fulfilled your obligation until 2013, no matter now little time you’ve spent here.  I called you in because we needed to pick a jury for a civil case today, but I’ve just been informed that that case has settled.  You can all go home.”

And that was it.

It was nine thirty, and I was calling Matt and Greg at home and Richard at work asking for somebody to spring me, and Richard came along and did it while I sat on the front steps of the courthouse in the heat and got harassed by a pack of little girls who were playing some kind of game that required running around and slamming into people.

Mostly me.

But that was not the end of it.  About an hour after I got home, we went out for a couple of minutes to the grocery store.  And when we got back, the mail was waiting for us.

In that mail, there was a summons to jury duty on September 24th.

It must have been sent out–well, I don’t know when it was sent out.  In the middle of scheduling me for yesterday, though, I’m sure.

They really can’t call you up more than once in four years, and I called the jury administration this morning and pointed out that I’d done my service yesterday, such as it was.  So that’s taken care of.

But still.

The whole thing makes me crazy.  I will never get on a jury in the state of Connecticut.  Between lawyers and judges who were family friends and lawyers and judges I dated in high school and law firms representing people I’ve either sued or been sued by–there just isn’t anybody left.

The one time I was on jury duty in New York, I did get put on a case, and a murder case at that, but the case ended in mistrial and that was that.   That case was interesting on a number of levels, not least of which was the fact that the defendant didn’t speak a word of English and needed an interpreter.  But I never did learn enough about it to make any guesses about what was going on there.

In the meantime, I read my way through a fairly early Agatha Christie novel called Three Act Tragedy.  I don’t remember ever having read it before, and I found it sort of disappointing.

The premise was actually very good, the mystery was pretty solid–but for some reason, the thing is written in a way that brings Poirot into the book almost not at all.

Christie always concentrates more on the suspects than she does on the detective, but this was not like that–Poirot shows up for a few paragraphs in the first third, then a few paragraphs for more in the second third, then gives the solution at the end.

The result was a book that lacked any definable shape.  It isn’t a detective novel in any sense of the word, not even the traditional rely on suspects sense–but it also isn’t any other kind of book.

I’m being vague here.

I will say it was a shame.  The last Christie I read–and only a couple of days ago–was Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and it was first class.  This just felt unsatisfying and drifty, in spite of having, as I’ve said, a really excellent premise and a really excellent mystery.

But I have been noticing something, to take us back to those discussions about what mystery readers are most interested in.

If what you’re concerned with is watching the detective detect, I don’t think Poirot’s your man.  He tends to ruminate a lot, go “ah, but I know,’ and then hit you with the solution in the end.

You can no more watch him detect than you can watch Santa come down the chimney.

I’ve got to run off and get serious.  We had a whole row of thunderstorm early this morning, and more are supposed to be coming.

Written by janeh

August 5th, 2010 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Continuing Characters

with 7 comments

The good news is that when I woke up this morning, only one of my eyes was welded shut.  It’s still an enormous pain in the rear, and it almost certainly means that I’m  having trouble concentrating, having trouble reading, and having trouble writing.

And I’m finishing a book, and I’m due to go in for jury duty tomorrow. 

Meaning that this is getting to be more than your usual distraction.

But in the meantime–

I wrote here several months ago about a Martha Grimes novel called The Old Wine Shades, about which I had a few complaints, not the least of which was the fact that the murderer was not caught and brought to justice.

We know who he is.  He is supposed to be a crimnal mastermind, and in a lot of ways is.  The basic story was very interesting.  But it bothered me–and it doesn’t always–that the man got away clean.

It turns out, however, that I may have spoken too soon.  The last day or two, I’ve been reading a book called Dust, also by Martha Grimes, and, I think, the sequel to The Old Wine Shades.  In it, our criminal mastermind murderer is back, apparently as a continuing character in what will be a set of subplots where Grimes’s detective, Richard Jury, tries to find some way to pin his crimes on him.

The idea of a criminal mastermind who continually thwarts the detective’s attempts to bring him to justice isn’t new.  Conan Doyle did it with Moriarity, and if I remember correctly there was something like that in the early Ellery Queen.

Okay, don’t quote me on that one, because I don’t really remember.  But you see what I mean.  It’s been around a while.

And yet, for some reason, I find it difficult to accept in this particular set of books.  Maybe the setting is too realistic. 

“Realistic” is the best word I can come up with here, but I don’t exactly know if it’s the one I want.  Grimes’s books are neither terribly realistic nor cutesy-cozy.  No police department in the world would allow Jury’s collaboration with an amateur detective named Melrose Plant, but the relationship is kept very low-key and it doesn’t jar with the more factually-based aspects of the stories. 

And there’s nothing unrealistic about the one that got away.  That happens to real policemen in real police departments all the time. 

The idea of a cop who won’t give up on the one that got away isn’t inherently unrealistic either.  There are enough true crime books out there about just that to make it practically a trope of real life, if real life can have tropes.

And, I have to admit it–I kind of enjoyed having the guy back.  He’s an interesting character on a lot of different levels.

I am, I know, sounding very contradictory and conflicted.  Maybe that’s the eye thing.  I don’t know.

I just know that this isn’t working for me, and I don’t know why. 

And the character does continue to the next book, which seems to be the one that’s out now.  And I’d read that one, except that I had a look through it in the store, and it did that thing with the extra-wide margins and the extra space between lines and the bigger print that publishers do when they want to make a book appear longer than it really is.

I coule have principled objections to something like that, but I don’t, really.  I just find books designed that way to be hard to read, and I’d rather wait forthe paperback and be comfortable.

Of course, sometimes they do that with paperbacks, and then I don’t read the book.

Ack.  My eye is still all gunked up, and I want to go somewhere and put ice on it.

Jury duty tomorrow, which, in Connecticut, lasts only a single day.

Some things, this state does do well.

Written by janeh

August 3rd, 2010 at 6:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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