Names and Faces, 2009: Wu XiBang

In 2009 I was teaching in Suzhou, China, at the international school in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). My Grade 9 students began talking about how most students took no notice of the cleaning ladies (“ayis”) and other local staff who worked in the school. They decided to interview and photograph some of them, and post the results on the school’s intranet. Thus was born the “Names and Faces” project. Here is one of my favourites, written by Jessie, Shimmona, and Jacelyn. The woman they interviewed, Wu XiBang, cleaned the corridor outside my classroom, so I saw her often. She was always smiling, just as she is in her photo.


We were three girls with a mission. We were determined. Confident. Unwavering. And so we crept forth, laptop on hand, to unearth our first target: The Cleaning Ayi. With our night vision goggles and black ninja suits we rolled across the floor all the way to the auditorium entrance. There, clothed in ayi clothes, stood our victim.

Wu XiBang

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“Are you busy?”
“No, I’m free right now.”

And so our creation was born.
So we strapped her to a toilet and started to gag her, but then realized that this was AAALLL A DREEEAAAAAAAM. And so THEN our creation was born.

Ayis. Our school is filled with them.  Silent workers behind the scenes, they prevent us from stepping into inch high layers of dust bunnies after the holidays. Armed with mops, they clean up after our messes.  Shrouded by a cloak of invisibility, they appear before us in a ray of heavenly light, a splotch of paint, or a dropped tray of food lying before our sheepish smiles.

But what do we know about these silent creatures? Their name, perhaps? Their age, family, dreams, pets, preference of dessert? And cue the sheepish grins once more.

Wu Xi Bang, a dedicated wife and mother, born and bred in SIP during its baby years.  Already, her children are older than us, with a daughter of 24 and a son of 16.  Everyday after work, she goes home. She buys vegetables, and cooks dinner. Every following weekday morning, around 7:45, she rides an e-bike to work, staying until five. And so the process is repeated, day after day, five days a week.

“So when you finish working, what do you do?”
“I go back. Then when I’m at home, I buy vegetables and cook dinner.”
“How about when you have spare time?”
“I relax on the sofa…watch TV.”
“Don’t you go out?”
“Ah, I rarely go out.”
“So you don’t go window shopping…or just take a walk outside?”
“Most of the time I’m just at home.”

When we were little, we dreamed of growing up and being famous rock stars, billionaires, Harry Potter, dinosaurs, The Joker and Batman. We wanted to go to Neverland, Hogwarts, the moon whilst riding in the back of the Batmobile. But when asked the same question, Wu Xi Bang merely shrugged.

“Nowhere. Where would I go?”
“Nowhere? Then are you happy with your life? With what you’re doing now?”
“Yeah, I’m satisfied. I’m happy.”

This concept was fascinating. Curious, we poked a little harder.

“When you were younger then, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“…Just be an adult.”
“Didn’t you dream of going to other places, of being famous, of becoming a rock star?”
“Nah. I just wanted to grow up, be an adult, have daughters, children, and have work; that’s all. After all, we’re just people who live then die; it’s just like that.”

And with those words, the woman standing before us, someone who many of you may have passed by with barely a glance, had just transformed into a completely different person before our eyes.  Her words were true. Her opinion was justified.  It was just like that.

“So a simple life is enough, for you?”
“Yeah. A simple life is enough.”

How stupid? *Really* stupid.

These are the actual words spoken by the Governor of Tennessee yesterday:

“We’re not looking at gun restriction laws in my administration right now. There’s one thing to remember, criminals don’t follow the laws. Criminals break laws,” Lee told reporters. “We can’t control what we can’t control.”

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, June 5, 2022

Oddly, the governor did not announce that he will be repealing Tennessee’s laws against murder, robbery, and assault, on the grounds that law-abiding citizens don’t need such laws and criminals won’t obey them anyway.

Binary thinking, again

I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

Frederick Douglass on women’s rights and the failure of governments

Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “woman’s rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights man. I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing not sex nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex.

In a conversation with Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she was yet a young lady and an earnest abolitionist, she was at the pains of setting before me in a very strong light the wrong and injustice of this exclusion. I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of “custom,” “natural division of duties,” “indelicacy of woman’s taking part in politics,” the common talk of “woman’s sphere,” and the like, all of which that able woman, who was then no less logical than now, brushed away by those arguments which she has so often and effectively used since, and which no man has yet successfully refuted. If intelligence is the only true and rational basis of government, it follows that that is the best government which draws its life and power from the largest sources of wisdom, energy, and goodness at its command. The force of this reasoning would be easily comprehended and readily assented to in any case involving the employment of physical strength. We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole. Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government. In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world. Thus far all human governments have been failures, for none have secured, except in a partial degree, the ends for which governments are instituted.

War, slavery, injustice and oppression, and the idea that might makes right have been uppermost in all such governments, and the weak, for whose protection governments are ostensibly created, have had practically no rights which the strong have felt bound to respect. The slayers of thousands have been exalted into heroes, and the worship of mere physical force has been considered glorious. Nations have been and still are but armed camps, expending their wealth and strength and ingenuity in forging weapons of destruction against each other; and while it may not be contended that the introduction of the feminine element in government would entirely cure this tendency to exalt might over right, many reasons can be given to show that woman’s influence would greatly tend to check and modify this barbarous and destructive tendency. At any rate, seeing that the male governments of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united. But it is not my purpose to argue the question here, but simply to state in a brief way the ground of my espousal of the cause of woman’s suffrage. I believe that the exclusion of my race from participation in government was not only a wrong, but a great mistake, because it took from that race motives for high thought and endeavor and degraded them in the eyes of the world around them. Man derives a sense of his consequence in the world not merely subjectively, but objectively. If from the cradle through life the outside world brands a class as unfit for this or that work, the character of the class will come to resemble and conform to the character described. To find valuable qualities in our fellows, such qualities must be presumed and expected. I would give woman a vote, give her a motive to qualify herself to vote, precisely as I insisted upon giving the colored man the right to vote; in order that she shall have the same motives for making herself a useful citizen as those in force in the case of other citizens. In a word, I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman.

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

The mystery of mass shootings in the U.S.

So far, the categories include . . .

  • white supremacist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Islamic extremist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • disgruntled employee with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • mentally ill teenager with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught father with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught boyfriend with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Chinese nationalist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Anti-Semitic neo-Nazi with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • misogynist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • xenophobe with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • incel with semi-automatic weapon(s)

I don’t know—they are all so different! Hard to see any pattern here.

U.S. Politics: The South Rises Again, Again

In the 1850s the southern, slaveholding states realized that they were losing, demographically. The U.S. was expanding westward, its population growing, and most of the growth was in non-slave or anti-slavery states. As this trend continued, the slaveholding states would be outnumbered in the Senate, and the slaveholding voters would be outnumbered by those opposed to slavery on economic grounds or (less often) on moral grounds. The clock was ticking. How long would it take for the new majority to impose its will and outlaw slavery altogether?

The demographic reality provoked fears that festered into paranoia and then hysteria in the South. Lincoln’s election convinced the slaveholders that it was now or never, and the Confederacy was born. Four bloody years later, the Confederacy was dead and the Old South lived under federal occupation for more than a decade. In 1877, as part of a back-room deal to resolve a deadlocked presidential election, Rutherford B. Hayes got the White House in return for the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states. Thus Reconstruction ended and ninety years of anti-black terrorism and Jim Crow laws began.

In 1965, a century after the Civil War, the federal Voting Rights Act finally ensured voting rights for all citizens. This triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, like the military victory a hundred years earlier, provoked a backlash among the white Christian nationalists who had fought to preserve Jim Crow, and lost. The Democratic Party, which for most of its history had been, in the South, the party of slavery and white supremacy, became the party of civil rights and social justice. The Republicans, originally the “party of Lincoln,” now became the last bastion of conservatives. GOP leaders welcomed disillusioned white Southerners and other conservative former Democrats into their ranks, thinking that they could control the more unsavoury elements among them, i.e., the most outspokenly racist and vicious. 

Once again, however, demographics began to tell against white supremacy. The nation became increasingly non-white, non-Christian, and multicultural. Once again, white Christian conservatives began to feel their “way of life” being threatened. Now, however, the divisions were not primarily geographic—the Old South vs. the northern and western states. Instead, the new divide was urban vs. rural. 

And that’s where we are today. A minority of mostly white, mostly Christian conservatives is using every anti-majoritarian tool it can find to resist the liberalizing tendencies of a growing majority of urban Americans who are more diverse, less religious, less prejudiced against racialized people, and better educated. These more liberal urban voters support abortion rights, support gay marriage, support voting rights for all citizens, and are not terribly alarmed by immigrants or Muslims or transgender people. To the white Christian, “pro-life,” anti-immigrant minority, such attitudes seem to signal the end of their “way of life” in the same way that the election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by whites in the slaveholding South as a mortal threat. 

The Republican Party, instead of using and controlling its most extreme members, has been taken over by them. The Democratic Party, with former Republicans and quasi-Republicans like West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin at one end, and activist progressives at the other end, constitutes a large but divided and perhaps irreconcilable majority. The outnumbered Republicans, using gerrymandered House districts, the anti-democratic Senate, and the anti-democratic Electoral College, hope to regain control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. If even those methods do not suffice, they will use dark-money funding and lies spread by right-wing media to finance and justify the invalidation of elections that don’t go their way.

The Confederacy may be dead, but the Old South, with its white supremacy and religious bigotry and appalling ignorance, is like a virulent bacillus that can be suppressed but never completely eradicated. When conditions are right, as they are today, it breaks out again. Buckle up!

Happy Birthday!

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for the birthday card and your kind messages!

I confess to a moment of shock when I first received it. 

“What?!” I thought, “Is it my birthday?” 

I had to check my driver’s licence and the calendar on my phone. The first confirmed that my birthday is actually in June, and the second confirmed that we are still in the month of May. 

Then I saw Michael’s message: “All the best on your 80th!”

That sent me back to my driver’s licence. 

There seem to be three possible explanations. 

One, Michael is ten years ahead of us. Two, I am ten years behind. Or three, Michael wisely decided to wish me a happy 80th on the odd chance that he might forget to wish me a happy 80th in ten years. 

And then I realized the truth: this is all Dakota’s little joke, just because I’m always saying “Happy Thanksgiving!” and “Happy Birthday!” to her. Today is somebody’s birthday, isn’t it? So, Happy Birthday! 

But now she has taken it another step: actually handing out birthday cards to people, randomly. And I was the obvious first choice.

Good one, Dakota!

And . . . Happy Birthday to you all! 

(Including Queen Victoria!)

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, my friends, 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.