George Saunders: What happens to me when I read fiction

From his wonderful book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House, 2021)

I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind.

I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid.

I feel I exist on a continuum with other people: what is in them is in me and vice versa.

My capacity for language is reenergized. My internal language (the language in which I think) gets richer, more specific and adroit.

I find myself liking the world more, taking more loving notice of it (this is related to that reenergization of my language).

I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be.

I feel more aware of the things of the world and more interested in them.

Most of that applies to other art forms, too.

Lincoln’s Proclamation and the white riot in New York

Frederick Douglass recounts Lincoln’s careful attempt to avoid making the Civil War about freeing the slaves—an attempt that, like more recent attempts to appease racism, failed.

The proclamation itself was throughout like Mr. Lincoln. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favor of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all-commanding object with him was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main-spring of all his measures. His wisdom and moderation at this point were for a season useful to the loyal cause in the border States, but it may be fairly questioned whether it did not chill the union ardor of the loyal people of the North in some degree, and diminish rather than increase the sum of our power against the rebellion; for moderate, cautious, and guarded as was this proclamation, it created a howl of indignation and wrath amongst the rebels and their allies. The old cry was raised by the copperhead organs of “an abolition war,” and a pretext was thus found for an excuse for refusing to enlist, and for marshaling all the negro prejudice of the North on the rebel side. Men could say they were willing to fight for the Union, but that they were not willing to fight for the freedom of the negroes; and thus it was made difficult to procure enlistments or to enforce the draft. This was especially true of New York, where there was a large Irish population. The attempt to enforce the draft in that city was met by mobs, riot, and bloodshed. There is perhaps no darker chapter in the whole history of the war than this cowardly and bloody uprising in July, 1863. For three days and nights New York was in the hands of a ferocious mob, and there was not sufficient power in the government of the country or of the city itself to stay the hand of violence and the effusion of blood. Though this mob was nominally against the draft which had been ordered, it poured out its fiercest wrath upon the colored people and their friends. It spared neither age nor sex; it hanged negroes simply because they were negroes; it murdered women in their homes, and burnt their homes over their heads; it dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp-posts; it burned the colored orphan asylum, a noble charity on the corner of Fifth avenue, and, scarce allowing time for the helpless two hundred children to make good their escape, plundered the building of every valuable piece of furniture; and forced colored men, women and children to seek concealment in cellars or garrets or wheresoever else it could be found, until this high carnival of crime and reign of terror should pass away.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XII. 1891.

History rhyming: justice be damned, let’s try to appease the bigots

In his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist recalls the months that followed Lincoln’s election in 1860. Many in the North were desperate to do whatever they could to appease the Southern secessionists and persuade them to return to the Union.

During all the intervening months, from November to the ensuing March, the drift of Northern sentiment was towards compromise. To smooth the way for this, most of the Northern legislatures repealed their personal liberty bills, as they were supposed to embarrass the surrender of fugitive slaves to their claimants. The feeling everywhere seemed to be that something must be done to convince the South that the election of Mr. Lincoln meant no harm to slavery or the slave power, and that the North was sound on the question of the right of the master to hold and hunt his slave as long as he pleased, and that even the right to hold slaves in the Territories should be submitted to the Supreme Court, which would probably decide in favor of the most extravagant demands of the slave States. The Northern press took on a more conservative tone towards the slavery propagandists, and a corresponding tone of bitterness towards anti-slavery men and measures. It came to be a no uncommon thing to hear men denouncing South Carolina and Massachusetts in the same breath, and in the same measure of disapproval. The old pro-slavery spirit which, in 1835, mobbed anti-slavery prayer-meetings, and dragged William Lloyd Garrison through the streets of Boston with a halter about his neck, was revived. From Massachusetts to Missouri, anti-slavery meetings were ruthlessly assailed and broken up. With others, I was roughly handled in Tremont Temple, Boston, by a mob headed by one of the wealthiest men of that city. The talk was that the blood of some abolitionist must be shed to appease the wrath of the offended South, and to restore peaceful relations between the two sections of the country. A howling mob followed Wendell Phillips for three days whenever he appeared on the pavements of his native city, because of his ability and prominence in the propagation of anti-slavery opinions.

While this humiliating reaction was going on at the North, various devices to bring about peace and reconciliation were suggested and pressed at Washington. Committees were appointed to listen to southern grievances, and, if possible, devise means of redress for such as might be alleged. Some of these peace propositions would have been shocking to the last degree to the moral sense of the North, had not fear for the safety of the Union overwhelmed all moral conviction. Such men as William H. Seward, Charles Francis Adams, Henry B. Anthony, Joshua R. Giddings, and others—men whose courage had been equal to all other emergencies—bent before this southern storm, and were ready to purchase peace at any price. Those who had stimulated the courage of the North before the election, and had shouted “Who’s afraid?” were now shaking in their shoes with apprehension and dread. One was for passing laws in the northern States for the better protection of slave-hunters, and for the greater efficiency of the fugitive-slave bill. Another was for enacting laws to punish the invasion of the slave States, and others were for so altering the Constitution of the United States that the federal government should never abolish slavery while any one State should object to such a measure. Everything that could be demanded by insatiable pride and selfishness on the part of the slave-holding South, or could be surrendered by abject fear and servility on the part of the North, had able and eloquent advocates.

Happily for the cause of human freedom, and for the final unity of the American nation, the South was mad, and would listen to no concessions. It would neither accept the terms offered, nor offer others to be accepted. It had made up its mind that under a given contingency it would secede from the Union and thus dismember the Republic. That contingency had happened, and it should execute its threat. Mr. Ireson [?] of Georgia, expressed the ruling sentiment of his section when he told the northern peacemakers that if the people of the South were given a blank sheet of paper upon which to write their own terms on which they would remain in the Union, they would not stay. They had come to hate everything which had the prefix “Free”–free soil, free States, free territories, free schools, free speech, and freedom generally, and they would have no more such prefixes. This haughty and unreasonable and unreasoning attitude of the imperious South saved the slave and saved the nation. Had the South accepted our concessions and remained in the Union, the slave power would in all probability have continued to rule; the North would have become utterly demoralized; the hands on the dial-plate of American civilization would have been reversed, and the slave would have been dragging his hateful chains to-day wherever the American flag floats to the breeze. Those who may wish to see to what depths of humility and self-abasement a noble people can be brought under the sentiment of fear, will find no chapter of history more instructive than that which treats of the events in official circles in Washington during the space between the months of November, 1860, and March, 1861.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter X. 1891.

Bigotry cannot be appeased: it is unappeasable. It must be denounced, opposed, and defeated. Otherwise, it never ends.

The government is not concerned with your health, or mine

The government—federal, state, provincial, local, whatever—is concerned with three things when it comes to public health:

  1. The economy: if businesses are losing money and shutting down, if people are losing their jobs, that’s a problem for the government.
  2. Hospitals and the health care system: if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, if there are shortages of doctors, nurses, or beds, that’s a problem for the government.
  3. Public sentiment: if government policies are highly unpopular, that’s a problem for the government.

My health, and yours, are not on that list. If my diet is not the best, if I don’t exercise enough, if I get sick, even if I am hospitalized, these are not problems for the government. They are only problems for me, my family, and my colleagues.

A lot of people seem not to understand this. As governments in many places remove mask requirements, people think, “Ah, the government says it’s safe now for me to stop wearing a mask indoors!”

Wrong.

It’s not safe. You can still get COVID, and even a mild case of COVID can lead to long-term health problems. Or you can pass it from person to person until it reaches a senior citizen or a cancer patient who then ends up in the hospital, and possibly the morgue. And yes, you can get COVID more than once. None of that is a problem for the government: but it’s a serious concern for you, and me.

Wear a good N95 mask when you are indoors.

If Only

“If only they could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably.”

“You mean, the Spartans and the Athenians?”

“No.”

“Oh!— the Greeks and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Goths and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Saxons and the Celts?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Moslems?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Jews?”

“No.”

“The Jews and the Arabs?”

“No.”

“The Catholics and the Protestants?”

“No.”

“The Irish and the English?”

“No.”

“The Europeans and the Amerindians?”

“No.”

“The Iroquois and the Hurons?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . the Han and the Manchu?”

“No.”

“The Chinese and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Koreans and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Japanese and the Russians?”

“No.”

“The Russians and the Germans?”

“No.”

“The Germans and the French?”

“No.”

“The French and the English?”

“No.”

“The English and the Americans?”

“No.”

“White Americans and Black Americans?”

“No.”

“Liberals and conservatives?”

“No.”

“Communists and—”

“No.”

“Monarchists and—”

“No.”

“Unions and management?”

“No.”

“Ah, I know! The Sunnis and the Shia!”

“No.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis?”

“No.”

“The Arabs and the Iranians?”

“No.”

“Maybe . . . the Kurds and the Turks?”

“No.”

“The Turks and the Armenians?”

“No.”

“Okay, I give up. If only who could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably?”

“Humans.”

Women in History: Ethelfled

Will and Ariel Durant, in their multi-volume Story of Civilization, pause for a moment to note Ethelfled [Æthelflæd] (870-918), the daughter of Alfred the Great (848-899). About 885 she was married to the Lord of Mercia to secure an alliance between Mercia and Alfred’s Wessex. Apparently her husband’s health declined from about 899 and she became the effective ruler in his place.

Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled, as regent and queen, gave Mercia for a generation effective and conscientious government. She built cities, planned military campaigns, and captured Derby, Leicester, and York from the Danes.

“From the difficulties experienced in her first labor,” says William of Malmesbury, “she ever afterward refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such unpleasant consequences.”

Persistence

Though we are mere
temporary
arrangements of molecules
caught in a welter of vast
processes
that began long before
and will continue long after
our molecules disperse again
into the soup from which they emerged,

yet we persist in
thinking ourselves important and
striving to make sense of
this fruit-fly existence.

On sickness and health: the wisdom of the ages and the COVID-19 anti-vax upsurge

First, the physician at Harvard, lecturing on Hippocrates:

The widest of all generalizations in the work of Hippocrates is this: as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.

—Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942), Harvard lectures, quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, editors (p. 287).

Second, Montaigne in his tower:

Let things take their course. Nature’s scheme, that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men—if they will have the same patience to let themselves be governed that fleas and moles have. There is no use in our shouting “Giddap”; that will indeed make us hoarse, but not get us ahead. Nature’s scheme is proud and pitiless. Our fear and despair disgust it and stop it from helping us, instead of inviting it to come to our aid. Nature is obliged to let both disease and health run their course. As for letting itself be corrupted in favour of the one to the prejudice of the other’s right, it will not do so, for it would then fall into disorder. Follow Nature, in God’s name, follow it! It leads those who follow. Those who will not follow, it drags along, with their rage and their medicine too. Order a purge for your brain; it will be better employed there than on your stomach.

—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Essays, Book II, Ch. 37, “Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers.” Adapted from the translation by Donald Frame.

The recent upsurge of anti-vaccination hysteria, often abetted by the “wellness” movement—for whom conventional medical practice is anathema—has reminded me of Hippocrates’ conclusion that the best treatment, most often, is no treatment at all. This conclusion must have been doubly true in the early days of modern medicine.

What remedies, after all, were on offer in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America? Bloodletting appears to have been the preferred treatment for almost any condition, followed closely by laxatives, emetics, and diuretics aimed at inducing the patient to defecate, vomit, or urinate his way to health. These treatments were based on the dominant medieval theory of medicine, which held that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four “humours” or essential bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Restore the balance, so the theory went, and the patient would recover. It is not difficult to see that this was medical theatre more than medical practice. When patients recovered, the doctor could take credit. When they perished, either from the disease or the treatment, or both, the doctor could sigh and say, “Alas, we did the best we could.”

More serious problems were addressed by an even more dreadful response: surgery. Surgery in the 18th and 19th centuries resembled butchery more than medical treatment. No anaesthesia. No sanitation. Doctors with bloody hands going from one patient to the next, spreading bacteria from patient to patient. This was truly barbaric and horrific.

We cannot be surprised that alternatives to such brutality arose. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, gave up his practice after concluding that conventional treatments like bloodletting did more harm than good. In 1796 he conceived an alternative approach that he called “homeopathy.” Its fundamental principle was that “like cures like.” Hahnemann took substances that were known to cause disease and diluted them repeatedly until the resulting solution was no different, chemically, from the inert ingredients that formed most of it—flavoured water, essentially. In the 19th century homeopathy became enormously popular, and one can see why: instead of being bled or purged, the patient need only drink these harmless potions, and—remember Hippocrates—most of them recovered their health!

Other pseudoscientific and supernatural alternatives to conventional medicine flourished in the 19th century: spiritualists, mesmerists, magnetizers, vitalists, phrenologists, iridologists, theosophists, etc., attracted large followings of people disillusioned not only with conventional medicine but with conventional religions. In 1875 Mary Baker Eddy, after a few years spent studying mesmerism with Joseph Quimby, published Science and Health and, in 1892, founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. “It is plain that God does not employ drugs or hygiene, nor provide them for human use; else Jesus would have recommended and employed them in his healing,” she wrote. Christian Science, as it came to be called, was an improvement even on homeopathy: no potions were required, only prayer. As always, successes could be credited to the theory, and failures explained away. Again, Hippocrates’ conclusion resonates: “as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.”

In the 20th century, while conventional medicine continued to make progress, such alternative treatments persisted. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. Unvaccinated, I suffered the most serious illness of my life in my late 30s when I contracted measles. (I escaped polio, smallpox, etc., only because almost everyone around me was vaccinated against them.) While living and working in Europe in the 1990s I saw, in Austria and Germany, pharmacy shelves filled with homeopathic remedies for every imaginable disorder. And in the 1960s, of course, as part of the anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture, Eastern religions, meditation, yoga, etc., were joined by a flood of alternative medicine and spiritual practices. Distrust of government and corporations reinforced distrust of the doctors and hospitals associated with them. The rise of cancers as populations began to live longer and as environmental pollution with various toxic chemicals had its inevitable consequences led to early forms of cancer treatment like chemotherapy that were dreadful for patients and often unsuccessful. Naturally, alternatives promising better results and less suffering were enticing.

This brief account should make the historical context of today’s upsurge of anti-vaccination sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic crystal clear. Anti-establishment distrust of institutions, fed today by the warp-speed propaganda machine of social media, joins with binary thinking in which things and people must be either good or bad. Big Pharma, we know, is a corporate rip-off racket that overcharges for their products and turns entire populations into opioid addicts. Big Pharma’s COVID-19 vaccines, therefore, are not to be trusted. Binary thinking denies the possibility that Big Pharma might lie to us in one case and tell the truth in another. Choosing simplicity over complexity, as humans so often do, many people fall into the trap of throwing out the baby, as the saying goes, with the bath water.

Modern medicine, though much improved, remains imperfect. Doctors and hospitals and insurance companies in the United States, the epicentre of the anti-vax upsurge, are profit-seekers in a capitalist healthcare system. Institutions of all sorts deserve skeptical scrutiny of their activities.

All of that is true.

It is also true that non-treatment of many illnesses, combined with whatever spiritualist naturopathic dietary hocus-pocus you wish, will probably lead to recovery as well as most over-the-counter potions that simply suppress symptoms.

It is also true, however, that mRNA vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID infections and mitigating their severity, while crystals, yoga, “natural immunity,” and anti-oxidants are not.

The common cold is not COVID-19. Recognizing the difference between them may make the difference in saving your life and the lives of those around you. If you have not done so already, get vaccinated!

Re-post: Frankenstein, the internet, the fake trucker “protests,” and why democracy is breaking

From June 2019: The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster.

Read the whole post here: https://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/2019/06/01/why-democracy-is-breaking/.

American Ozymandias

(With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
lie in the undergrowth. Near them, a man’s
bearded face, half-buried, frowns
or sadly stares at ruins once so grand.
Shattered inscriptions can be read
whose noble aspiration rings—
With malice toward none, one said.
Whether that nation . . . can endure.
These broken words still sing,
though feebly, into the empty air.
Nothing else remains. Round that decay
the vegetation spreads, lush—yet bare—
all evidence of humans swept away.”

Isaiah Berlin on Joseph de Maistre and the reaction against the Enlightenment

What the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin . . . . Joseph de Maistre and his followers and allies . . . formed the spearhead of the counter-revolution in the early nineteenth century in Europe.

History and zoology, [wrote Maistre], are the most reliable guides to nature: they show her to be a field of unceasing slaughter. Men are by nature aggressive and destructive; . . . when men are sent to war, to exterminate beings as innocent as themselves for no purpose that either army can grasp, they go obediently to their deaths and scarcely ever mutiny. When the destructive instinct is evoked men feel exalted and fulfilled.

Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives . . . . It is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian elite . . . that they can hope to survive and be saved.

If the State is to survive . . . the source of authority must be absolute . . . . Only then will men learn to obey it. . . . Without a clear hierarchy of authority—awe-inspiring power—men’s incurably destructive instincts will breed chaos and mutual extermination. The supreme power—especially the Church—must never seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms; for what one man can demonstrate, another may be able to refute.

The best government the world has ever known was that of the Romans . . . . 

Dark instincts govern man and societies; only elites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education, which is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom . . . . The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. . . .

These gloomy doctrines became the inspiration of monarchist politics in France, and together with the notion of Romantic heroism and the sharp contrast between creative and uncreative, historic and unhistoric individuals and nations, duly inspired nationalism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and pathological form, Fascist and totalitarian doctrines in the twentieth century.

—From “The Counter-Enlightenment,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin (1979)

Arnold Nash: Reason is not a neutral principle

A historian on the American side of the Atlantic received a fitting rebuke to his implied assumption that to be outside a particular tradition made an unbiased view of controversial questions possible. In conducting the oral examination of a Mormon student who was submitting a Ph.D. thesis on a particular period of Mormon history, the historian asked the student if he, being a Mormon, considered himself sufficiently unprejudiced to write a thesis on Mormon history. The somewhat daring student appositely remarked, “Yes, if you, not a Mormon, consider yourself unprejudiced enough to examine it.” 

This implicit assumption that the rationalist can transcend all bias and achieve an impartial perspective is not limited to his dicta on religion. He feels the same way about politics. Thus he has no difficulty in rejecting the Nazi or the Marxist philosophy in the name of Reason. He fails to see that it is in the name of reason as he understands it. To those who maintain that there is no common rational ground on which the democrat and the Nazi can resolve their theoretical differences he replies, with W. T. Stace, that “in that case, our preference for democracy, we shall have to admit, is in the end nothing but an irrational prejudice.” This reply rests upon a completely mistaken understanding of the function of reason in human thought and life. Each system, whether Nazi, or Marxist, or liberal, or rationalist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, has its own view of Reason. Reason, therefore, is not a neutral principle which can be appealed to in favour of one rather than another of the competing systems. An illuminating parallel is that of language. It is impossible to describe a language except in terms of a particular language, for there is no language which is a “neutral.” 

Arnold S. Nash, The University and the Modern World (1944), pp. 93-94

So . . . Is Arnold’s claim simple relativism? Or is he on to something here?

Epicurus (341–270 BC), a hep cat

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. . . . He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.

—From Wikipedia

So right, so long ago, and so many still haven’t figured it out.

Turgenev on Tolstoy

In August 1856 Turgenev left for France and he met Tolstoy several times in Paris. “Tolstoy speaks of Paris as Sodom and Gomorrah,” Turgenev wrote. “He is a blend of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, and landowner’s son—somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau—a highly moral and at the same time an uncongenial being.”

—V.S. Pritchett, The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

Montaigne’s wisdom

La plus expresse marque de la sagesse, c’est vne esiouissance constante: son estat est comme des choses au dessus de la lune, tousiours serein.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Volume One, Chapter 25

Wikiquote.org offers this English translation: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.”

If Montaigne were writing English today, however, he would not produce such a sentence. I prefer to think he would write something like this:

A cheerful calm, constant as stars in the darkness, is the surest sign of wisdom.

Robinson Crusoe’s father on the advantages of being middle-class

“He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind [i.e, the working poor], and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz., that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.”

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), Chapter 1

Practice, practice, practice!

Some students think that certain assignments are important, while others are not important—or that some assignments are more important than others.

This is a dangerous error.

If you only read what is assigned to you, you will never read enough to become a really good reader, and to acquire the background knowledge you need.

If you only write what is assigned to you—or even worse, only what the teacher marks in detail—you will never write enough to become a good writer.

Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball except during team practices and games. That player will never learn to play basketball well. Good players become good by spending hours and hours and hours in the gym, shooting lay-ups, shooting free-throws, shooting jump shots. No coach is there pointing out errors or praising progress. 

Or consider the piano student. Once a week, during lessons, the teacher points out what the student is doing well, and where the student needs to improve. In between lessons, the student must practice, practice, practice, practice. No one is there to say, “That’s good!” or “No, no, your left-hand fingering is wrong!” 

Getting better is all about the repetitions. 

If it were possible for a superhuman English teacher to mark in detail every piece of writing you do, it would be a waste of time for the teacher, and for you! Why? Because we continue making the same mistakes, for a long time. Mistakes arise out of bad habits, and bad habits can be corrected only through practice, practice, practice! 

Consider the basketball player. During a team practice, the coach sees that the player’s elbow is stuck out away from the body on jump shots. “Pull your elbow in! Your forearm should be vertical!” says the coach. But the player must shoot hundreds or thousands of jump shots to train the brain and the body to keep the elbow in and the forearm vertical. It would be useless for a coach to stand behind the player for hours crying out, “Elbow out! ”That’s better!” No, it’s out again!” The player knows what the problem is. Correcting it takes practice, practice, practice!

Those hours of practice begin to pay off, eventually, during team practices and games. But without the hours of practice, unobserved and ungraded, the player—and the student—will never make much progress.

Who will be a better player: the one who never touches a ball except during team practices and games, or the one who isn’t even on the team but spends hundreds of hours in the gym practicing?

Who will be a better writer: the student who never writes except on graded assignments and exams, or the one who writes every day, privately, and is not even enrolled in the course?

The answer is the same in both cases. 

Better than either of these, however, will be the player who practices for hours alone, gets good coaching during team practices, and then puts it all together during games. Better than either will be the student who reads and writes voraciously outside of class, gets good instruction in class, and then puts it all together on graded assignments and exams.

That’s why every assignment is important.

Why do conservatives hate science?

Attempts at religious reform aroused popular anger because the inborn conservativeness of man is nowhere stronger than in the field of religion. The religion of his fathers must not be criticized, even if his own profession of it is but an outward show. The most malicious kind of hatred is that which is built upon a theological foundation. On the other hand, the resistance to scientific novelties was due to an intuitive, if unconscious, appreciation of their revolutionary nature. The slightest and the most innocent scientific innovation is but a wedge which is bound to penetrate deeper and deeper, and the advance of which will soon be impossible to resist. Conservative people are undoubtedly right in their distrust and hatred of science, for the scientific spirit is the very spirit of innovation and adventure—the most reckless kind of adventure into the unknown. And such is its aggressive strength that its revolutionary activity can neither be restrained nor restricted within its own field. Sooner or later it will go out to conquer other fields and to throw floods of light into all the dark places where superstition and injustice are still rampant. The scientific spirit is the greatest force for construction but also for destruction.

—George Sarton, The History of Science and the New Humanism,  as quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, editors

James Lovelock: “Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth”

In an article published in The Guardian, 102-year-old James Lovelock warns that the Earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the Earth.

Along with Lynn Margulis, Lovelock in the 1970s popularized the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the Earth and its inhabitants form a single complex interactive system. I remember thinking, “Well, of course!” when I first read of this idea half a century ago, but apparently it remains, somehow, controversial.

“I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe,” Lovelock writes, “but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.”

He also mentions nuclear power:

But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.

To which I say . . . well, of course!

I strongly recommend the entire article. And, Dr. Lovelock: thank you!

Arnold J. Toynbee on race (1934)

Whatever the explanation of our sensitiveness to Physical Race may be, its undoubted existence as an element in our consciousness is apt to produce two intellectual consequences which are fertile in errors. It makes us assume that a phenomenon of which our perceptions are so acute must be proportionately plain to our understandings, whereas our scientific knowledge about Race in its physical aspect is really not appreciably greater than our knowledge about Race in its psychic aspect. In the second place, we are led into taking for granted—without proof and even without presumptive evidence—the postulate of a correlation between Physical Race and Psychical Race which we have mentioned just above. Before making these hazardous intellectual leaps in the dark, we seldom pause to reflect that we are setting out to explain one unknown quantity in terms of another. 

In the Western World of our day, ‘racial’ explanations of social phenomena are much in vogue. Racial differences of human physique, regarded as immutable in themselves and as bearing witness to likewise immutable racial differences in the human psyche, are supposed to account for the differences which we observe empirically between the fortunes and achievements of different human societies. These ‘racial theories’, which always start from the two assumptions to which we have drawn attention, are striking examples of one social phenomenon which we have now learnt to discount: to wit, the influence of social environment on historical study.

The belief that differences of Physical Race are immutable is not peculiar to our age or our society. The rhetorical question ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’ anticipates, in poetic imagery, the modern Western racialist’s travesty of the modern Western biologist’s proposition that acquired characteristics are not transmissible—and the doctrine is not the more securely established for being formulated in prose. The present vogue of racialism in the West, however, has really little to do with current scientific hypotheses. A prejudice so strong as this cannot be accounted for by a cause so rational. Modern Western racial prejudice is not so much a distortion of Western scientific thought as a pseudo-intellectual reflection of Western race-feeling; and this feeling, as we see it in our time, is a consequence of the expansion of our Western Civilization over the face of the Earth since the last quarter of the fifteenth century of our era. 

The feeling has been aroused by contact, often under untoward conditions, between societies whose members happen to stand at opposite extremes of the range of variety in Physical Race which is to be found in the Genus Homo. Our Western Civilization happens to have emerged and developed among peoples in Western Europe who belong, in their physique, to certain varieties of ‘the White Race’ which our ethnologists have labelled ‘Caucasian’. In exploring the whole surface of the planet these White Westerners have come across representatives of all the other physical races of mankind; and in most of the permanent settlements which they have made, beyond the narrow borders of Western Europe, overseas, they have come to live intermingled geographically with members of one or more of these other races: in America, South Africa, and East Africa with African negroes; in the two latter regions with representatives of the dark-skinned races of India, as well; in Australia with the altogether primitive ‘Blackfellows”; in New Zealand with the Polynesian Maoris; and in all parts of Australasia, as well as along the Pacific coast of North America, with representatives of the so-called Yellow Race from China and Japan. 

In all these countries overseas where White people from Western Europe have settled cheek by jowl with representatives of other races, there are three elements in the situation which between them go far towards accounting for the strength and virulence of Western race-feeling in our time. First, the White people have established an ascendancy over the people of other races with whom they have come to share their new homes. Secondly, these White masters have almost everywhere abused their power in some way and in some degree. Thirdly, they are haunted by a perpetual fear that some day the positions may be reversed; that by weight of superior numbers or by more successful adaptation to the local climate or by ability to survive on a lower level of subsistence or by readiness to do harder physical or intellectual work, the Man of Colour may eventually bring the White Man’s ascendancy to an end and perhaps even establish an ascendancy of his own over the White Man. The ‘first shall be last, and the last first’; and, if ever this comes to pass, the White Man’s children must expect to have the sins of their fathers visited on their heads, for, in the consciousness of ‘under-dog’, the past is ever present. These considerations enter into the race-feeling of Western settlers overseas; and it is the feeling of these frontiersmen on the subject of Race that determines the feeling of our Western Society as a whole.

The Protestant Background of our Modern Western Race-feeling

The race-feeling which is thus aroused in our Western Society by the present situation and temper of our settlers overseas all springs naturally from the religious background of those Western people who are of the Protestant persuasion.

In our Western history, the Protestant movement started immediately before the movement of overseas settlement; and, in the eighteenth century of our era, the competition between the peoples of Western Europe for the command of the overseas world ended in the victory of the English-speaking Protestants, who secured for themselves the lion’s share of those overseas countries, inhabited by primitive peoples, that were suitable for settlement by Europeans, as well as the lion’s share of the countries inhabited by adherents of the living non-Western civilizations who were incapable at the time of resisting Western conquest and domination. The outcome of the Seven Years’ War decided that the whole of North America, from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande, should be populated by new nations of European origin whose cultural background was the Western Civilization in its English Protestant version, and that a Government instituted by English Protestants and informed with their ideas should become paramount over the whole of Continental India. Thus the race-feeling engendered by the English Protestant version of our Western culture became the determining factor in the development of race-feeling in our Western Society as a whole. 

This has been a misfortune for Mankind, for the Protestant temper and attitude and conduct in regard to Race, as in many other vital issues, is inspired largely by the Old Testament; and in matters of Race the promptings of this old-fashioned Syriac oracle are very clear and very savage. The ‘Bible Christian’ of European origin and race who has settled among peoples of non-European race overseas has inevitably identified himself with Israel obeying the will of Jehovah and doing the Lord’s work by taking possession of the Promised Land, while he has identified the non-Europeans who have crossed his path with the Canaanites whom the Lord has delivered into the hand of his Chosen People to be destroyed or subjugated. . . .

From the first volume of A Study of History, Toynbee’s 12-volume opus that he worked on for nearly thirty years.

Sterne summons the gods of storytelling

O ye powers! (for powers ye are, and great ones too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing——that kindly shew him, where he is to begin it—and where he is to end it——what he is to put into it——and what he is to leave out—how much of it he is to cast into a shade—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!

—Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Book II, Chapter XVI

The Next Mission

Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex,” which has grown beyond imagination since he coined that phrase, has provided the means for the Vietnam War, the Iraq Wars, the Afghanistan War, and numerous other U.S. foreign policy boondoggles of lesser consequence. The motive for these tragic misadventures, however, comes from a hubristic ideology of American moral superiority, and of its military, economic, and political invincibility.

After the final debacle of the Vietnam War in 1975, the lesson of that conflict should have been clear: intervention in a foreign country to create and prop up a corrupt, unpopular government is a grave error bound to end badly. (To hope that the U.S. foreign policy establishment should also have learned that such interventions are grossly immoral—a point understood perfectly well by millions of Americans who protested against the war—is probably too much to hope.) In 1954 the CIA told Eisenhower that, should the referendum promised to the Vietnamese people be carried out, Ho Chi Minh’s communists would win. The referendum was scuttled, and instead the U.S. entered on the long path leading to April, 1975.

In the years immediately following the war there was grumbling from the military and its supporters that the soldiers had been betrayed by gutless politicians in Washington, but the country as a whole was eager to leave Vietnam behind, and no national “autopsy” of the war took place. Two decades later, however, a group of Washington insiders who favoured the “stab-in-the-back” theory of Vietnam came to power. These were the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons,” men like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, and Paul Bremer. These men held powerful positions, officially and unofficially, in the administration of George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, and they had the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the fall of 2001 the neo-cons seized upon them as a golden opportunity to expunge the memory of Vietnam forever and prove both the superiority of American arms and the invincibility of her economic and political power. This is why the invasion of Afghanistan, which began as a short-term project to punish the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and their supporters, evolved into a fruitless 20-year attempt to build a modern democracy in that country. That is why Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, was invaded on the flimsiest of lies and manufactured pretexts, and why Saudi Arabia, from whom most of the 9/11 terrorists originated, was left alone. The neo-cons really believed that Americans would be welcomed in the streets of Baghdad and throughout the region by cheering crowds strewing flowers, and that the United States could re-form the entire Middle East into a series of pro-Western democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) states that, along with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states would provide the U.S. with a copious supply of oil while, with Israel’s help, suppressing the Islamist insurgencies that threatened the U.S., its Arab allies, and Israel.

It was all a stupid fantasy.

The fantasy was powered by the neo-cons’ ideology, to which they clung with religious fervour, impervious to all evidence and reasoned argument to the contrary. (Notice the religious implications of the language used by the U.S. military, for whom a campaign is a “mission.”) The obvious corruption of the local officials put into power by the U.S. invaders, and of the local elites who pocketed the billions and billions of dollars that the U.S. poured into Afghanistan and Iraq, made no impression whatsoever on the neo-cons. (The profiteering of the neo-cons’ supporters back home in the arms industry, the construction industry, etc., leeches sucking their sustenance from the bloated military-industrial complex, no doubt made an impression, but of a different sort.)

And now, after Joe Biden has taken the difficult and courageous step of removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after two decades, the cycle begins again. Already today’s neo-cons are repeating the old arguments: the military was not properly supported, we could have stayed more or less permanently at little cost, a bit more time would have made all the difference. The innocent victims of the Taliban, especially the girls and women, are pushed continually to the front as the new neo-cons say, “See? See what injustice we perpetrate by leaving?” (Meanwhile the corrupt Afghan elites with their bulging Swiss bank accounts go unmentioned.)

How many years must pass before the foreign policy establishment in Washington and their military-industrial allies are ready to promote yet another ill-fated project in their religious campaign to defend the purity and superiority of America?

The Vertigo Plan for diet and fitness

This revolutionary approach to diet and fitness will transform your body, and your life.

To begin, the vertigo attack, or rather, attacks. This involves at least a week of absolute misery: dizziness, followed by nausea, sweats, and violent vomiting. One’s desire to eat disappears entirely, and thus the path to a healthier diet begins. Being completely dysfunctional, you arrive one way or another in the local hospital’s emergency room. Once they have taken blood and given you an EKG to be sure that you are not in immediate danger of death (although death, at this point, begins to look mighty attractive indeed), you sit—and sit—and sit, waiting to see the doctor. During this time, you continue to have intermittent attacks, groaning piteously and finally dry-heaving (your stomach has been empty for hours now) into whatever receptacle they provide for you.

At last you see the doctor, who tells you that you probably have ordinary vertigo so it’s nothing to worry about too much, and then sends you back to the waiting room with an IV drip of saline solution (to treat your dehydration) and then dramamine (to treat your nausea). During these hours in the ER waiting room you eventually realize, through hard experience, that trying to take your mind off your misery by consulting your smartphone or reading the book that you cleverly brought with you is a grave, grave error. Why? Because every such attempt at diversion simply triggers another body-wrenching attack. Before you figure this out, however, you have more attacks, they give you more dramamine which has no effect whatsoever, and then they tell you that they want to find you a bed and keep you overnight and give you a CT scan, just in case. Sending the patient home only to have him drop dead of a stroke seems to be bad form in the hospital biz.

Depending on what time of day you arrive in the cardiac ward, you may wait several more hours (or overnight) for your first meal since . . . well, you can’t remember since when. With that meal, when it finally arrives, comes another revelation: the portion sizes are Lilliputian. Imagine eating with a child’s plastic tea set for dishes, and you will have the right idea. Miraculously, this modest, thimble-sized repast leaves you . . . quite satisfied. Then it dawns on you: however sane, natural, organic, or vegetarian your diet may have been until now, you have been eating way too much!

Assuming that your CT scan is satisfactory (“Your CT scan is beautiful!” said the nurse. “You are very kind,” I replied, “but I still feel terrible.”) you will receive another visit from a different doctor who will explain all about vertigo and what you need to do going forward, and will give you a prescription that might help you. Vertigo is a wonder of 21st century medicine in that no one seems to know what causes it, the treatment works only variably, no one knows how to prevent it, and it may recur at any moment. 

Once you arrive home, a word of advice: do not, I say, do not under any circumstances take your rest on a soft, bouncy bed. If you are like me, the jiggling produced merely by shifting your weight or turning from one side to the other will bring on another round of spinning, nausea, and sweats, and soon you will find yourself on hands and knees, crawling toward the bathroom in the dark. Take my advice and sleep on the floor. I mean it.

We are nearing, now, the fitness component of this revolutionary plan for rejuvenation. Take note of all the things you cannot do. You cannot read, or use the computer, or look at your smartphone. You cannot walk about. You cannot do dishes, or put a load of laundry in the washing machine, or clean the bathroom (though it likely needs it). It is easier to say what you can do. You can sit, with eyes closed, or lie down (on the floor!) with eyes closed. You can listen to music, or to the radio, or to an audiobook. You can nap. You can sleep. Just barely, you can eat a Lilliputian portion of food three or four times a day, to take with your pill. And . . . you can exercise! 

Yes! Lying on the floor, as you listen to whatever you are listening to, you can do leg lifts, first from your right side, then your left, then from your back. You can stretch your hamstrings, your quads, and whatever else you wish. You can lie on your back, bring your knees up, and then push your pelvis up into the air, holding it there as long as you like. You can do isometric exercises of your biceps and triceps, and of other things as well, no doubt.

When you book an appointment with the physiotherapist, you will be shown another series of exercises designed to rehabilitate your vestibular system (notice, too, the good effect of this dreadful ordeal on your vocabulary!) which you can add to your home exercise regime. 

By the time your vertigo recedes, God willing, you will have transformed your life, and your body. You will be slimmer. You will be spending one-half or one-third of what you previously spent on food. You will be strong, and supple. You will have utterly broken whatever social media addictions you may have suffered under previously, and the thought of spending any more time than absolutely necessary on a computer or a smartphone will be abhorrent. You will want, instead, to take walks, during which you marvel at the mundane miracle of being able to walk without falling down. Filled with soul-cleansing gratitude, you will marvel, too, at similar mundane miracles: flowers, trees, clouds, children, dogs, and people in all their mundane variety.

And you will owe all these blessings to the Vertigo Plan.

Ode to the Inner Ear

Miraculous device, unseen,
unnoticed, unremarked,
keeping us oriented and upright
as we navigate
the ups and downs, the lefts and rights,
calling no attention to itself.

But when it goes awry
we give it our
full attention
as the world spins,
as our eyes cannot find a fixed point,
as hot flush turns to clamminess, then sweats,
as the nausea builds to a climax of
violent vomiting.

O inner ear,
forgive our neglect,
resume your post,
save us from miserable dysfunction.
We will not forget.

—23 August 2021

The lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021

For the third time now I have witnessed from a distance a political cataclysm that has dominated world news reports for days, or weeks. In 1975 it was the fall of Saigon, marking the final victory of communist forces in Vietnam and ending a conflict that lasted three decades. In 1989 it was the collapse of the Soviet Union’s post-WWII “Iron Curtain,” including the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania, all of it recorded breathlessly by television cameras. And now, in 2021, we are watching the end of the American occupation, the collapse of the Afghan government, and the re-establishment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan after twenty years.

In all three cases, a dominant “super-power” attempted to exert its influence in foreign countries by propping up corrupt governments that lacked popular support. In all three cases, the attempts succeeded for decades, albeit at significant cost in lives and money. In all three cases, the super-power was eventually forced to withdraw, and local control was reasserted.

After 1975 there was a good deal of public handwringing in the United States. What were the “lessons of Vietnam”? In the end, the U.S. government learned only two lessons. They were both military lessons, and they were both wrong. Lesson 1: end military conscription, because an army of draftees was unreliable. Lesson 2: keep the press away from combat and strictly control their access to soldiers. 

The real “lesson of Vietnam” was political, not military, and it was also the lesson of the Soviet Union, and the lesson of Afghanistan: invading other countries, installing corrupt puppet regimes, and ignoring the will of the people is a costly blunder that always ends in defeat.

Since 1975, Vietnam has rebuilt its economy and established amicable relations with its former nemesis, the United States. Since 1989, the nations of Eastern Europe that were formerly under Soviet domination have managed their own affairs, with varying degrees of success. In Afghanistan, we can only hope that the worst fears of a second Taliban government will not be realized, and that the Afghan people will be able to create a national consensus that respects the wide variety of beliefs and values that they hold. 

And among the world’s super-powers, we can only hope that the simple and obvious lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021 will finally be learned and put into practice.

Edith Wharton: The world is a welter and has always been one

The world is a welter and has always been one; but though all the cranks and the theorists cannot master the old floundering monster, or force it for long into any of their neat plans of readjustment, here and there a saint or a genius suddenly sends a little ray through the fog, and helps humanity to stumble on, and perhaps up.

The welter is always there, and the present generation hears close underfoot the growling of the volcano on which ours danced so long; but in our individual lives, though the years are sad, the days have a way of being jubilant. Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death; yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read (and, I hope, to write), a thousand little daily wonders to marvel at and rejoice in, and those magical moments when the mere discovery that “the woodspurge has a cup of three” brings not despair but delight. The visible world is a daily miracle for those who have eyes and ears; and I still warm my hands thankfully at the old fire, though every year it is fed with the dry wood of more old memories.

A Backward Glance (1934)


“The Woodspurge”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

The wind flapp’d loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walk’d on at the wind’s will,—
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,—
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flower’d, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,—
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

We need nuclear power to escape from climate change disaster

Dear Important People:

The recent spate of climate disasters around the globe must draw our attention to a truth that people in the environmentalist movement, with few exceptions, do not want to hear:

There is no path to a carbon-free energy future without a significant increase in nuclear power.

The common fears surrounding nuclear power—radiation and waste storage—are overblown. Nuclear power is the safest, cleanest energy source we have, and the only one capable of replacing the energy we now get from fossil fuels. Solar and wind power have their place, but they cannot supply enough energy, and enough 24/7 power, to meet the world’s needs.

I hope you will use your platform to help overcome public fears about nuclear power and promote, first, the continued use of existing nuclear power plants, and second, the urgent and rapid development of new nuclear power plants as an essential element in our fight to preserve a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.

Sincerely yours,

Eric T. MacKnight

Dreiser to Mencken

I do not know what truth is, what beauty is, what love is, what hope is. I do not believe anyone absolutely and I do not doubt anyone absolutely. I think people are both evil and well-intentioned.

—Theodore Dreiser, letter to H. L. Mencken,

quoted in The Novel: A Biography, by Michael Schmidt

Anglo culture in the New World

Racism
Xenophobia
Provincialism
Aversion to learning foreign languages
Aversion to foreign food
Exceptionalism
Cultural arrogance
Aggressive patriarchy
Homophobia
Sexism
Anti-Semitism
Religious bigotry

Anti-intellectualism and aversion to education, especially among the working class


Are there positive aspects of Anglo culture? Of course. The rule of law, for example, or the idea of liberty (Milton, Locke, Burke, etc.). Unfortunately, both the rule of law and the idea of liberty have been subverted by racism. One recalls the line attributed to Gandhi when asked what he thought of Western civilization: it “would be a good idea.” So would liberty, justice, and an impartial rule of law.

Frederick Douglass: July 5th, 1852

. . . Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? . . . Am I . . . called upon . . .to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

. . . I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. . . . This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . .

. . . I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. . . .

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. . . .

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is . . . a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. . . .

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor.

You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. . . . It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster . . . !

But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic. . . . But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. . . .

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. . . .

    —“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852). A speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York

Plus ça change: Frances Trollope on Americans

A single word indicative of doubt, that any thing, or every thing, in that country is not the very best in the world, produces an effect which must be seen and felt to be understood. If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.

The art of man could hardly discover a more effectual antidote to improvement, than this persuasion; and yet I never listened to any public oration, or read any work, professedly addressed to the country, in which they did not labour to impress it on the minds of the people.

—from Domestic Manners of the Americans, Chapter 34 (1832)

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage?

The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, Zulu pastor of a country church in pre-apartheid South Africa, goes to Johannesburg in search of his sister and his son:

But there were times, some in the very midst of satisfaction, when the thought of his son would come to him. And then in one fraction of time the hills with the deep melodious names stood out waste and desolate beneath the pitiless sun, the streams ceased to run, the cattle moved thin and listless over the red and rootless earth. It was a place of old women and mothers and children, from each house something was gone. His voice would falter and die away, and he would fall silent and muse. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps he clutched suddenly at the small listening boy, for the little one would break from the spell, and wriggle in his arms to be put down, to play again with his blocks on the floor. As though he was searching for something that would put an end to this sudden unasked-for pain, the thought of his wife would come to him, and of many a friend that he had, and the small children coming down from the hills, dropping sometimes out of the very mist, on their way to the school. These things were so dear to him that the pain passed, and he contemplated them in quiet, and some measure of peace.

 

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Now God be thanked that there is a beloved one who can lift up the heart in suffering, that one can play with a child in the face of such misery. Now God be thanked that the name of a hill is such music, that the name of a river can heal. Aye, even the name of a river that runs no more.

 

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle, and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? Who knows why the warm flesh of a child is such comfort, when one’s own child is lost and cannot be recovered? Wise men write many books, in words too hard to understand. But this, the purpose of our lives, the end of all our struggle, is beyond all human wisdom. Oh God, my God, do not Thou forsake me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, if Thou art with me. . . .
—Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, Chapter 10

Out-of-fashion romantic nonsense

“What objection can you have to the young gentleman?”

“A very solid objection, in my opinion,” says Sophia—“I hate him.”

“Will you never learn a proper use of words?” answered the aunt. “Indeed, child, you should consult Bailey’s Dictionary. It is impossible you should hate a man from whom you have received no injury. By hatred, therefore, you mean no more than dislike, which is no sufficient objection against your marrying of him. I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book VII, Chapter iii.

Country gentlemen, and gentlemen in town

He then bespattered the youth with abundance of that language which passes between country gentlemen who embrace opposite sides of the question; with frequent applications to him to salute that part which is generally introduced into all controversies that arise among the lower orders of the English gentry at horse-races, cock-matches, and other public places. Allusions to this part are likewise often made for the sake of the jest. And here, I believe, the wit is generally misunderstood. In reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your a[rse] for having just before threatened to kick his; for I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another.

It may likewise seem surprizing that in the many thousand kind invitations of this sort, which every one who hath conversed with country gentlemen must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single instance where the desire hath been complied with;—a great instance of their want of politeness; for in town nothing can be more common than for the finest gentlemen to perform this ceremony every day to their superiors, without having that favour once requested of them.

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book VI, Chapter ix.

Death is certainly unavoidable . . .

And now the whole family, namely, Mr Blifil, Mr Jones, Mr Thwackum, Mr Square, and some of the servants (for such were Mr Allworthy’s orders) being all assembled round his bed, the good man sat up in it, and was beginning to speak, when Blifil fell to blubbering, and began to express very loud and bitter lamentations. Upon this Mr Allworthy shook him by the hand, and said, “Do not sorrow thus, my dear nephew, at the most ordinary of all human occurrences. When misfortunes befal our friends we are justly grieved; for those are accidents which might often have been avoided, and which may seem to render the lot of one man more peculiarly unhappy than that of others; but death is certainly unavoidable, and is that common lot in which alone the fortunes of all men agree: nor is the time when this happens to us very material. If the wisest of men hath compared life to a span, surely we may be allowed to consider it as a day. It is my fate to leave it in the evening; but those who are taken away earlier have only lost a few hours, at the best little worth lamenting, and much oftener hours of labour and fatigue, of pain and sorrow. One of the Roman poets, I remember, likens our leaving life to our departure from a feast;—a thought which hath often occurred to me when I have seen men struggling to protract an entertainment, and to enjoy the company of their friends a few moments longer. Alas! how short is the most protracted of such enjoyments! how immaterial the difference between him who retires the soonest, and him who stays the latest! This is seeing life in the best view, and this unwillingness to quit our friends is the most amiable motive from which we can derive the fear of death; and yet the longest enjoyment which we can hope for of this kind is of so trivial a duration, that it is to a wise man truly contemptible. Few men, I own, think in this manner; for, indeed, few men think of death till they are in its jaws. However gigantic and terrible an object this may appear when it approaches them, they are nevertheless incapable of seeing it at any distance; nay, though they have been ever so much alarmed and frightened when they have apprehended themselves in danger of dying, they are no sooner cleared from this apprehension than even the fears of it are erased from their minds. But, alas! he who escapes from death is not pardoned; he is only reprieved, and reprieved to a short day.

“Grieve, therefore, no more, my dear child, on this occasion: an event which may happen every hour; which every element, nay, almost every particle of matter that surrounds us is capable of producing, and which must and will most unavoidably reach us all at last, ought neither to occasion our surprize nor our lamentation. . . .”

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book V, Chapter vii.