Ignorance and cruelty

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I’ve never understood why the seven deadly sins don’t include ignorance and cruelty. They have anger and gluttony and lust in there, but I’d much rather have a person eat three slices of apple pie but be kind and well informed. Gluttony doesn’t come anywhere close to ignorance. I’m not talking about stupidity. I’m talking about failing to be informed and to deliberately cut yourself off from knowing things. That must lead to every kind of error there is.

—Louis Naidorf, architect

Naidorf designed the iconic circular Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. He is quoted in this profile in Billboard magazine.

Sugar addiction: no longer a metaphor

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Most people hear the phrase “sugar addiction” as a metaphor. A new study from Denmark indicates that sugar addiction is literal. Dr. Michael Winterdahl, one of the scientists who led the study, wanted to refute the idea that sugar was physically addictive. The evidence changed his mind:

“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake,” says Winterdahl.

The study from Aarhus University is explained in layman’s terms in this article from MedicalXpress.com. The technical English-language summary on the Aarhus University site is here.

For more about sugar, see my post on the Good Habits blog, “Kick the sugar habit—or it will surely kick you.”

On the murder of Qasem Soleimani

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Why are crimes not called crimes if they are committed by the US government?

Can we stop calling the murder of Qasem Soleimani a “mistake” or a “blunder”? It was a crime. Murder.

Those who refuse to call it murder are complicit in excusing it.

Soleimani, we are told, deserved to die because he was a bad man who committed terrible crimes. Fine. The proper response to crime is arrest, indictment, and trial—not summary execution.

Imagine if nations behaved like citizens governed by the rule of law, instead of organized crime families trying to maximize their power and putting out hits on their rivals.

American History

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Slaveowners declaiming eloquently about freedom, and
merchants declaiming eloquently about the evils of taxation,
create a new nation
populated largely by brash, ignorant, racist know-nothings
who spin a wonderful myth about Success and the American Dream
and convince themselves that they are both the Good Guys
and (eventually) the Greatest Nation on Earth,
smugly confident that power and virtue can be perfectly aligned
in America.

Ignoring the crimes committed in their name,
they are astonished when their victims strike back.
“They hate us because we are free!” they cry,
as if that makes any sense at all.

And even now, after Civil Rights and Vietnam,
after Iraq and Afghanistan,
after Roe v. Wade and marriage equality,
after legalized marijuana and Black Lives Matter,
when everyone who’s woke gets their news
from TV comedians,
when a self-proclaimed socialist finishes second
in the Democratic presidential primaries—

even after all that, Hillary Clinton (!) gets three million more votes
but still loses the election
because of the anti-democratic Constitution
written by those slave-owning Founders,
and the anti-democratic Republicans in the Senate refuse
to acknowledge the obvious crimes committed by their president
whose re-election will depend on a few thousand votes in a handful
of white-majority midwestern states cast by
people who know nothing about
American history.

Robert Frank, “The Americans”

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Bar, Gallup, New Mexico
Bar, Gallup, New Mexico
With brilliant insight and economy, Frank revealed a country that many knew existed but few had acknowledged. He showed a culture deeply riddled by racism, alienation, and isolation, one with little civility and much violence. He depicted a society numbed by a seemingly endless array of consumer goods that promised many choices but offered no real satisfaction, and he revealed a people emasculated by politicians who were fatuous and distant at best, messianic at worst.
—Introduction to Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”
by Susan Greenough, Senior Curator of Photographs
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Socialize pro sports!

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Reading about the insane and obscene contracts being handed out to Major League Baseball’s most elite free-agents has reminded me of one of my better brilliant-ideas-that-will-never-happen.

Let’s socialize pro sports.

Crazy, eh? Read on.

Each team would be owned by its city. Players would be paid well, but not exorbitantly, according to a league-wide pay scale and salary cap. Players would have generous post-career packages that made sure they had plenty of opportunities to obtain further education and build a second career. And the biggest stars could still cash in on the side with endorsement deals, etc.

Players would cease to be nomads with a list of teams on their resumés. Trades would still happen, but not—as is so often the case today—as salary dumps. For the most part, team rosters would be stable. 

Fans would be supporting their team, and cheering for their players, instead of supporting some billionaire’s team and cheering for the latest gang of rent-a-players to put on the team uniform.

Ticket prices could return to affordable levels for middle-class fans.

The bulk of the TV revenues and other profits would go to the owners—that is, the cities—and be used for roads, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, etc. 

“Objection!” you say. “My city government has messed up everything else already—I don’t want them firing coaches and GMs, too. And what about the possibilities for corruption?”

And I say: you’ve got to be kidding. 

How could the hiring and firing of team management get any worse than it is now? And how could a bit more government graft be worse than a small pack of billionaires and millionaires taking everything? Maybe city ownership of teams would inspire a bit more participation in the democratic process; how bad could that be?

And I haven’t even mentioned the current scandalous conditions under which cities are extorted into subsidizing stadiums for billionaire owners who threaten to pack up and move elsewhere if they don’t get the sweet deal they demand.

To hell with all these billionaires. Socialize pro sports so we can root for teams that are really ours.

The center of serenity

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The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.

—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Laozi

TOK Assessment (IB Diploma Programme)

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I just resumed teaching TOK after a hiatus of four years, but I began teaching the course in 1987 and have taught it almost every year since then.

My two cents’ worth:

The major problem with TOK assessment is that there are only two marks—the essay and the presentation—whereas in other courses there are several. Result: one anomalous mark can really skew the final grade.

Solution: Add a short-answer TOK question to each of the exams in other subject areas.

Besides increasing the number of marks that go into the final grade for TOK, this would have the added benefit of involving all subject teachers in TOK (whereas in the overwhelming number of cases presently, DP teachers who do not teach TOK know nothing about it). This would help restore TOK to its intended role at the center of the DP curriculum.

I do not imagine that this suggestion will make it into the 2020 course update. It would take time, of course, to develop short-answer TOK questions for each subject area. But I hope that it will be seriously considered for future improvements to the programme.

Too much stupid

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How many stupid things can a nation do, and how stupid can its leaders and its people be, before the nation falls into an irreversible spiral of decline?

The underlying factor behind the stupidity is addiction. Modern society is an addiction culture. Everything that drives economic activity involves some kind of addiction, and addiction makes people stupid. Try using charts, data, and facts to explain to a junkie why he should stop using heroin. Now do the same and try to convince people to give up junk food and junk entertainment and junk consumerism.

Neil Postman was right in 1985 in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: in the television age, everything is entertainment. In the internet age, all the factors Postman identified have increased geometrically. So we are told that in the UK people are “tired” of hearing about Brexit, and that in the US people are “fed up” with talk about impeachment. Low entertainment value. Change the channel.

Timothy Leary’s 1960s call to the hippie generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out” has been co-opted by the commercial addiction juggernaut—as has been everything else that dissidents of any sort have put forward. The society as a whole has turned on to addictions of all sorts, tuned in to culture as entertainment, and dropped out of any serious engagement with political life.

Decline and fall, baby.

For a more technical and data-based version of this analysis, read “This is How a Society Dies,” by Umair Haque.

Quality vs. Taste: The Ice Cream Story

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No ice cream was consumed during the writing of this story, and consuming ice cream of any kind is NOT recommended. If you want something sweet, eat fruit.

One Saturday afternoon my friend and I were walking down the pedestrian-only section of the main shopping district downtown. My friend looked to the left and saw a Mr. Softie vendor selling swirls of soft ice cream in three different colors, with sprinkles of various kinds available at additional cost. “Oooh! Mr. Softie!” he cried, and started toward the stand. “Wait!” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s in that stuff? It’s just air and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors and artificial colors. The only real thing about it is the very real damage you do to yourself when you put that poison in your body.” “I know,” he said. “It’s crap, and it’s really bad for me, but I love it anyway.” And off he went. 

Waiting for him amid crowds of shoppers, I began looking around. On the opposite side of the street to the Mr. Softie stand was a Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream shop. The best, most expensive, and most delicious ice cream in the world! Without hesitating I walked through the ornate double doors, already salivating as I imagined a scrumptious bowl of Waldorf-Ritz Rocky Road. The moment I passed through the doors, lights began flashing, celebratory music began playing, and confetti began falling from the ceiling. The store manager rushed straight up to me, smiled happily, and said, “Congratulations, sir! You are the one millionth customer to walk through those doors!” He took me by the arm and led me to a special roped-off table that had been prepared for the occasion. “Please have a seat here, sir,” he said. Then he called to his employees, “Bring out the Prize Ice Cream!” In a kind of procession, the entire staff escorted the master ice cream chef to me as he carried, on a silver tray, a large bowl of ice cream. “There you are, sir!” said the manager. “Three scoops of our unbelievably delicious pistachio ice cream, free of charge, with our compliments. I know you will enjoy it.”

I looked at the ice cream, and then at the circle of happy employees waiting to see me take my first spoonful, and then at the manager. “I really appreciate this,” I said, “but I’m sorry to say that I don’t like pistachio ice cream.” The manager looked shocked, but then smiled. “I think you misunderstand, sir,” he said. “This ice cream is handmade in small batches by our master ice cream chef. All the ingredients are 100% natural, organic, and completely free of any artificial additives or colorings of any kind whatsoever. The cream comes from cows raised in luxury dairy farms where they are treated like movie stars. Nowhere in the entire world will you find ice cream even half as good as Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream!”

“I know that your ice cream is the best in the world,” I sighed. “But I don’t like pistachio ice cream!”

The moral of this sad tale, of course, is that judgments of quality are different from judgments of taste. I may love Mr. Softie ice cream, or I may love a corny movie or a trashy piece of pop music, even though I know that if I judge their quality, they all fail the test. On the other hand, I may admit that Waldorf-Ritz Pistachio ice cream or the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are all superb examples of ice cream, fiction, and dance, while still not enjoying any of them. In the words of the great American film critic, Roger Ebert, “Does it make a movie ‘good’ because you ‘like’ it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies.” We can put this another way: no one can tell you that your judgments of taste are wrong. No one can say, “You are wrong to dislike pistachio ice cream!” But if someone who knows more than you do about literature and ballet says, “You are wrong to claim that the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are crap,” he just may be correct.

Malcolm X on education

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Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.

—Malcolm X, Speech at Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (28 June 1964), as quoted in By Any Means Necessary (1970)

John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long”

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Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

—John Adams, Letters to John Taylor (1814)

Orwell pulls no punches

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From “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” (1942):

The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. . . .

The Fascists won because . . . they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.

. . . the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. . . . Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time . . . .

. . . the people who support or have supported Fascism . . . are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. . . . the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. . . .

All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.

My Old Friend

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for all of my old friends

My old friend lives far away
from me and
I live far away
from my old friend.
We send email back and forth
from time to time,
a photo, a song, or
something in the news.
I am a part of my
old friend’s life,
only a part,
and my old friend is a
part of my life, too,
but just
a part.
We share good memories.
One day my email will not be answered.
Or perhaps
one day I will not
be here to open
my old friend’s message.
One of us will become
pure memory.
Sooner or later
both of us will
disappear into the
land of eternal forgetting.

The teacher’s vocation

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In La gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol remembers one of his father’s colleagues, who graduated from teacher’s college first in his class. From there he went straight into a job in the worst neighbourhood in Marseille, a part of town where no one dared to walk at night. He stayed there, teaching in the same classroom for forty years. 

Marcel overhears his father ask this man one evening,  

“So, you never had any ambition?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “I did! And I think I have succeeded very well. Just think: in twenty years, my predecessor saw six of his former students guillotined. As for me, in forty years I have only seen two, plus one who was reprieved. That’s made it all worthwhile.”

A reasonable creature

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I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter.

All this seem’d very reasonable.

But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well.

I balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Moderates vs. radicals: we have been here before

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From the “History Doesn’t Repeat, but Sometimes It Rhymes” Dept:

In the early days of France’s Third Republic (ca. 1870 – 1890), the major political divide was between monarchists, who wanted a king again, and republicans, who favoured parliamentary democracy.

The moderate republicans, called “opportunists” because they thought new laws should be introduced only when they were expedient, wanted to avoid disruptive issues, to limit the scope of reform, and to deal with one problem at a time. “Nothing must be put in the republican program that the majority of the nation cannot be induced to accept immediately,” Gambetta had said, as spokesman of the opportunist point of view. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted to carry through sweeping reforms at once. . . .

Meanwhile, the mass of the French people remained indifferent to the republic or were becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the government’s resistance to programs designed to improve the lot of industrial and agricultural workers. . . .

Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian empire,

In 1890 militant German and Slavic nationalists combined to prevent . . . compromise on the nationalities question. In 1891 both Czech and German moderates were routed in the parliamentary elections. . . .

[Prime Minister Taafe failed] to solve the serious financial problems of the empire. . . . Instead of meeting the problem with a large-scale program of tax and financial reform, Taafe simply increased the rate of state borrowing, thereby raising the cost of servicing the national debt.

. . . [His] efforts at social reform were also ineffective. . . . Taafe’s proposals for universal suffrage and labor reform offended every vested interest in the country. . . .

The political response . . . was the spectacular growth of the Christian Socialist movement [led by Vienna mayor] Karl Lueger (1844 – 1910) [who] championed the rights of the worker, peasant, and small businessman against big business and “Jewish” capitalism. He advocated a socialist welfare state . . . where Slavs, Jews, and Protestants would not be welcome. Lueger was enormously popular and was repeatedly elected mayor of Vienna.

—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850 – 1890  (1977)

The obvious parallels with current events in Europe and the U.S. should concern all of us. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the rise of Western democracies are not finished stories. Neither is the U.S. struggle over slavery and its transformation after 1865 into a struggle over racial equality. These stories continue; the history continues. Our era did not begin in 1945, or in 1900, but in Paris in 1789, and we still do not know how the political, economic, and racial issues unleashed in the French Revolution will finally sort themselves. A racist, authoritarian triumph is not out of the question.

Lack of consensus + poor leadership = big, big trouble

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The failure of genuine parliamentary government . . . was due . . . to the absence of the feature most necessary for its successful operation: broad agreement among the main power groups in a country about fundamental issues.

. . . The crucial power to determine government policy remained in the hands of the executive leadership. Hence the quality of leadership in every country was at all times of paramount importance.

—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890 (1977)

“A martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world”

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In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.

—Will Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

Kansas City, 1938

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Jesse Price (L) and Charlie Parker (R) horsing around in the summer of 1938. Price was 19, Parker a year younger. Jesse Price was a drummer and singer who worked largely as a sideman but made a few great recordings as a band leader and vocalist in the early days of R&B, similar in style to early Louis Jordan. “Frettin’ for Some Pettin'” (1948) and “Jump It With a Shuffle” are great examples of his work. Photo credit: American Jazz Museum.

Voltaire: I am silent, I have too much to say

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My dear brother, my heart is withered, I am crushed. . . . I am tempted to go and die in some foreign land where men are less unjust. I am silent, I have too much to say.

—From a letter written 7 July 1766, on hearing of the torture and execution of the chevalier de La Barre. La Barre’s body was burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.

Why Trump Will Be Re-Elected

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In no particular order . . .

  1. Many American voters simply want to extend their middle fingers to the establishment elites. Trump is that middle finger.
  2. He has bought the Christian Right’s votes by packing the courts and making the overturning of Roe v. Wade possible.
  3. The economy is booming; many will ignorantly credit Trump for that.
  4. He has bought the support of big business with massive tax cuts, deregulation, and zero action to counter climate change.
  5. Many white people support his attacks on people of color; many more simply ignore those attacks because they just don’t care much about the problems of brown people and foreigners.
  6. The polls are meaningless because Trump supporters will either lie to pollsters or refuse to talk to them at all.
  7. Nothing has been done to counter the massive propaganda machine of Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, and the Russian intelligence services.
  8. Nothing has been done to stop dark money from flooding into the American election. You can bet that the Russians, the Saudis, and the Israelis will be heavily invested.
  9. Some of that dark money will finance a 3rd-party candidate on the left who will siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate.
  10. No one the Democrats nominate will be able to withstand the onslaught of lies thrown at them by Trump and the Fox News / social media propaganda machine.

Is that enough?

Why Democracy Is Breaking

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Here’s the problem.

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.

As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups. 

On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913). 

These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.

Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.

The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. 

But it’s worse than that.

The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule. 

Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death. 

Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.

TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis. 

But it’s worse than that.

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. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump. 

There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around. 

Which is why democracy is breaking. 

If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.

Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.

Anthony Trollope describes Donald Trump (1875)

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Yes, 1875. In his novel, The Way We Live Now, Trollope presents Mr. Auguste Melmotte, a thorough-going fraud and swindler who, for a brief period, takes hold of English finance and politics. The following excerpts require no comment.


The chief crime laid to his charge was connected with the ruin of some great continental assurance company, as to which it was said that he had so managed it as to leave it utterly stranded, with an enormous fortune of his own. 

The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds—of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers—was that Mr Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.

“Couldn’t he draw it a little milder?” Lord Alfred made his reply almost in a whisper. “If you ask me, I don’t think he could. If you got him down and trampled on him, you might make him mild. I don’t think there’s any other way.” “You couldn’t speak to him, then?” “Not unless I did it with a horsewhip.”

Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.

Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England.

“You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.” “A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor;—a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”  

“And yet these leaders of the fashion know,—at any rate they believe,—that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,—and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.”  

“Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.” “It’s going to the dogs, I think;—about as fast as it can go.”  

Perhaps the most remarkable circumstance in the career of this remarkable man was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself.

Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him,—and so had the danger.  

Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy.  

With the means which would still be at his command, let the worse come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions. 

He read Alf’s speech, and consoled himself with thinking that Mr Alf had not dared to make new accusations against him. All that about Hamburg and Vienna and Paris was as old as the hills, and availed nothing. His whole candidature had been carried in the face of that.  

Of course he had committed forgery,—of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life. Of course he was in danger of almost immediate detection and punishment. He hardly hoped that the evil day would be very much longer protracted, and yet he enjoyed his triumph. Whatever they might do, quick as they might be, they could hardly prevent his taking his seat in the House of Commons. Then if they sent him to penal servitude for life, they would have to say that they had so treated the member for Westminster!  

He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women,—the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him.  

There was much that he was ashamed of,—many a little act which recurred to him vividly in this solitary hour as a thing to be repented of with inner sackcloth and ashes. But never once, not for a moment, did it occur to him that he should repent of the fraud in which his whole life had been passed. No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man.  

Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them.

Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.

Knowledge, information, and democracy

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A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

—James Madison

Source: Letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (1910) edited by Gaillard Hunt, Vol. 9, p. 103.

Why do a GAP year?

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Throughout my career I have advised my Grade 12 students to do a GAP year before beginning their college studies. I gave the same advice to my own children.

Why?

Most first-year university students waste their parents’ money and 25% of their four short years as undergraduates, because instead of going to every class and studying as hard as they can, they are busy doing all the things they couldn’t do when they were living at home with their parents. That year would be much better spent out of the classroom in one of a very large number of excellent GAP programs. After a year traveling, living abroad, working in a service program, etc., students are not just ready but eager to go back to school. They are a year older. They are less interested in staying up all night and going to parties.

Here is one college professor’s take on this question:

It is the rare high school graduate who is ready to take full advantage of what a Bachelor’s course can offer. A year away from education – traveling, working, volunteering, growing up – before college should be the preferred option, the default, not the rarity it is in the US. It is common enough in Europe, and often very successful. Our undergrads who return from their Junior [third] Years all around the world (we send around 2/3 of them abroad) are often, finally, the kind of curious, thoughtful, broad-minded students who are ready to take advantage of what we can offer them. And they get a year of it [i.e., their last year of university] before they move on. If more of our students came to us at the beginning in something like that frame of mind, they would get a great deal more out of their college experience.

I did not take a year out between school and university. I had a fabulous time and learnt a lot, but missed so many opportunities. It was only in my mid-20s, looking back, that I realized what fantastic resources had been available to me, had I only had the wisdom to use them.

—Ed Webb*

*Source: http://weblogg-ed.com/2008/oh-and-you-have-a-degree-too/#comments

Many colleges and universities allow students to apply, be admitted, and then defer their entrance for one year so they can do a GAP program of some kind. They do this because they recognize that first-year students who are a bit older, a bit more mature, and really keen to study do better, usually, than those who go straight from high school to university. Ask your college admissions counselor for advice about this process.

Gene Krupa: how to develop your left hand

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The author has found it very helpful to try do as many things with the left hand as is usually done with the right. Opening doors (the ones with the door-knobs being an ideal hand turning exercise), lacing your shoes, carrying parcels, tieing your necktie, buttoning your shirt, feeding yourself at the table, and writing, have been found to be excellent exercises for the left hand.

—Gene Krupa’s Drum Method (1938)

“This is a monstrous act of savagery”

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“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”

“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”

“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”

“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”

“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”


Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.