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.

On sickness and health: the wisdom of the ages

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.

Why do conservatives hate science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also mentions nuclear power:

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

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

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

Arnold J. Toynbee on race (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

The Protestant Background of our Modern Western Race-feeling

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

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

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

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

Sterne summons the gods of storytelling

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

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

Book II, Chapter XVI

The Next Mission

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

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

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

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

It was all a stupid fantasy.

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

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

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

The Vertigo Plan for diet and fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to the Inner Ear

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

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

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

—23 August 2021

The lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Backward Glance (1934)


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

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

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

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

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

We need nuclear power to escape from climate change disaster

Dear Important People:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Eric T. MacKnight

Dreiser to Mencken

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

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

quoted in The Novel: A Biography, by Michael Schmidt

Anglo culture in the New World

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

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


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

Frederick Douglass: July 5th, 1852

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus ça change: Frances Trollope on Americans

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

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

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

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage?

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

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

 

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

 

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

Out-of-fashion romantic nonsense

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

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

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

—Henry Fielding

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

Country gentlemen, and gentlemen in town

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

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

—Henry Fielding

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

Death is certainly unavoidable . . .

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

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

—Henry Fielding

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

Bipartisan Football

The elephant extends his trunk and holds the ball on end, ready to be kicked through the goalpost.

The donkey, five strides behind the football, is skeptical.

(Joe Manchin, waving pom-poms and running along the sideline, leaps and cheers.)

Elephant: Come on, kick it through those goal posts!

Donkey: That’s what you said before. And then you pulled the ball away at the last moment, and I fell on my ass.

Elephant: That was then, this is now.

Donkey: And the time before that, same thing.

Elephant: Let’s not dwell on the past. I am here on behalf of responsible moderates in the Senate who want to put some points on the board.

Donkey: I’d rather score a touchdown.

Elephant: Wouldn’t we all! But let’s be realistic: three points is better than nothing.

The donkey hesitates. The clock is ticking.

Donkey: No funny business this time. Do I have your word?

Elephant: You have my solemn word of honor.

Donkey: All right, then. Here we go.

The donkey runs and takes a mighty kick at the ball, which the elephant whisks out of reach at the last moment as the donkey’s kicking foot, finding nothing but air, arcs high above his head. The donkey flips backwards, remains horizontal for a split second, and then crashes heavily to earth on his back.

And what do we get from all this?

Peanuts.

Thackeray Knew Trump

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way—and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world? 

—William Makepeace Thackerary, Vanity Fair (1848)

Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” (1848)

Thanks to my Kindle and my daily bus commute, I finally got around to reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Would I have appreciated it half as much, had I read it in my twenties? I doubt it.

Like some of my other recent reading, Vanity Fair reminded me how much of what I deplore in American and (to a lesser extent) Canadian culture comes from England.

Here are some of my favourite snippets.

“Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural,” answered Miss Rebecca. “I’m no angel.” And, to say the truth, she certainly was not.
We have talked of Joseph Sedley being as vain as a girl. Heaven help us! the girls have only to turn the tables, and say of one of their own sex, “She is as vain as a man,” and they will have perfect reason. The bearded creatures are quite as eager for praise, quite as finikin over their toilettes, quite as proud of their personal advantages, quite as conscious of their powers of fascination, as any coquette in the world.
“That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson’s character,” Miss Crawley said. “He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that.
The old gentleman pronounced these aristocratic names with the greatest gusto. Whenever he met a great man he grovelled before him, and my-lorded him as only a free-born Briton can do.
Miss Briggs, it will be seen by her language, was of a literary and sentimental turn, and had once published a volume of poems—“Trills of the Nightingale”—by subscription.
Picture to yourself, oh fair young reader, a worldly, selfish, graceless, thankless, religionless old woman, writhing in pain and fear, and without her wig. Picture her to yourself, and ere you be old, learn to love and pray!
Gratitude among certain rich folks is scarcely natural or to be thought of. They take needy people’s services as their due.
If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!
The best of women (I have heard my grandmother say) are hypocrites. We don’t know how much they hide from us: how watchful they are when they seem most artless and confidential: how often those frank smiles which they wear so easily, are traps to cajole or elude or disarm—I don’t mean in your mere coquettes, but your domestic models, and paragons of female virtue. Who has not seen a woman hide the dulness of a stupid husband, or coax the fury of a savage one? We accept this amiable slavishness, and praise a woman for it: we call this pretty treachery truth. A good housewife is of necessity a humbug . . . .
We are Turks with the affections of our women; and have made them subscribe to our doctrine too. We let their bodies go abroad liberally enough, with smiles and ringlets and pink bonnets to disguise them instead of veils and yakmaks. But their souls must be seen by only one man, and they obey not unwillingly, and consent to remain at home as our slaves—ministering to us and doing drudgery for us.
Who has not remarked the readiness with which the closest of friends and honestest of men suspect and accuse each other of cheating when they fall out on money matters? Everybody does it.
One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.
Who was the blundering idiot who said that “fine words butter no parsnips”? Half the parsnips of society are served and rendered palatable with no other sauce.
Praise everybody, I say to such: never be squeamish, but speak out your compliment both point-blank in a man’s face, and behind his back, when you know there is a reasonable chance of his hearing it again. Never lose a chance of saying a kind word.
There ought to be a law in Vanity Fair ordering the destruction of every written document (except receipted tradesmen’s bills) after a certain brief and proper interval. Those quacks and misanthropes who advertise indelible Japan ink should be made to perish along with their wicked discoveries. The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else.
“I wish they would have loved me,” said Emmy, wistfully. “They were always very cold to me.” “My dear child, they would have loved you if you had had two hundred thousand pounds,” George replied.
In a word, George had thrown the great cast. He was going to be married. Hence his pallor and nervousness—his sleepless night and agitation in the morning. I have heard people who have gone through the same thing own to the same emotion. After three or four ceremonies, you get accustomed to it, no doubt; but the first dip, everybody allows, is awful.
By humbly and frankly acknowledging yourself to be in the wrong, there is no knowing, my son, what good you may do.
Hither Mr. Osborne would retire of a Sunday forenoon when not minded to go to church; and here pass the morning in his crimson leather chair, reading the paper. A couple of glazed book-cases were here, containing standard works in stout gilt bindings. The “Annual Register,” the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” “Blair’s Sermons,” and “Hume and Smollett.” From year’s end to year’s end he never took one of these volumes from the shelf . . . .
Amelia had risen very early in the morning, and packed her little trunks with the greatest alacrity, while Osborne lay in bed deploring that she had not a maid to help her.
When don’t ladies weep?
As his hero and heroine pass the matrimonial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain, as if the drama were over then: the doubts and struggles of life ended: as if, once landed in the marriage country, all were green and pleasant there: and wife and husband had nothing to do but to link each other’s arms together, and wander gently downwards towards old age in happy and perfect fruition.
Already to be looking sadly and vaguely back: always to be pining for something which, when obtained, brought doubt and sadness rather than pleasure; here was the lot of our poor little creature and harmless lost wanderer in the great struggling crowds of Vanity Fair.
When the present writer went to survey with eagle glance the field of Waterloo, we asked the conductor of the diligence, a portly warlike-looking veteran, whether he had been at the battle. “Pas si bête”—such an answer and sentiment as no Frenchman would own to—was his reply.
To watch the behaviour of a fine lady to other and humbler women, is a very good sport for a philosophical frequenter of Vanity Fair.
(nor does the continental domestic like to be treated with insolence as our own better-tempered servants do)
Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil’s code of honour.
You and I, my dear reader, may drop into this condition one day: for have not many of our friends attained it? Our luck may fail: our powers forsake us: our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes—the chance of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded.
She was not brilliant, nor witty, nor wise over much, nor extraordinarily handsome. But wherever she went she touched and charmed every one of the male sex, as invariably as she awakened the scorn and incredulity of her own sisterhood. I think it was her weakness which was her principal charm—a kind of sweet submission and softness, which seemed to appeal to each man she met for his sympathy and protection.
And for my part I believe that remorse is the least active of all a man’s moral senses—the very easiest to be deadened when wakened, and in some never wakened at all. We grieve at being found out and at the idea of shame or punishment, but the mere sense of wrong makes very few people unhappy in Vanity Fair.
To part with money is a sacrifice beyond almost all men endowed with a sense of order.
Everybody is striving for what is not worth the having!
It is all vanity to be sure, but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast beef?
Henry VIII, the Defender of the Faith, seized upon the monastery and its possessions and hanged and tortured some of the monks who could not accommodate themselves to the pace of his reform.
When you think that the eyes of your childhood dried at the sight of a piece of gingerbread, and that a plum cake was a compensation for the agony of parting with your mamma and sisters, oh my friend and brother, you need not be too confident of your own fine feelings.
It is difficult to say what good the old man saw in these combats; he had a vague notion that quarrelling made boys hardy, and that tyranny was a useful accomplishment for them to learn. English youth have been so educated time out of mind, and we have hundreds of thousands of apologists and admirers of injustice, misery, and brutality, as perpetrated among children.
. . . when he drove into town he was as full of wine, beer, meat, pickles, cherry-brandy, and tobacco as the steward’s cabin of a steam-packet.
Desdemona was not angry with Cassio, though there is very little doubt she saw the Lieutenant’s partiality for her (and I for my part believe that many more things took place in that sad affair than the worthy Moorish officer ever knew of) . . . .
Any person who appreciated her paid a compliment to the Major’s good judgement—that is, if a man may be said to have good judgement who is under the influence of Love’s delusion.
Which, I wonder, brother reader, is the better lot, to die prosperous and famous, or poor and disappointed? To have, and to be forced to yield; or to sink out of life, having played and lost the game? That must be a strange feeling, when a day of our life comes and we say, “To-morrow, success or failure won’t matter much, and the sun will rise, and all the myriads of mankind go to their work or their pleasure as usual, but I shall be out of the turmoil.”
Pleasant Rhine gardens! Fair scenes of peace and sunshine—noble purple mountains, whose crests are reflected in the magnificent stream—who has ever seen you that has not a grateful memory of those scenes of friendly repose and beauty? To lay down the pen and even to think of that beautiful Rhineland makes one happy.
And it must be remembered that this poor lady had never met a gentleman in her life until this present moment. Perhaps these are rarer personages than some of us think for.
Lord Tapeworm inherited no little portion of the family gallantry, and it was his happy belief that almost every woman upon whom he himself cast friendly eyes was in love with him.
. . . the delighted people are permitted to march through room after room of the Grand Ducal palace and admire the slippery floor, the rich hangings, and the spittoons at the doors of all the innumerable chambers.
The Constitution is or was a moderate despotism, tempered by a Chamber that might or might not be elected.
and though, of course, these gentlemen were obliged to be civil in public, yet they cut at each other with epigrams that were as sharp as razors, as I have seen a couple of wrestlers in Devonshire, lashing at each other’s shins and never showing their agony upon a muscle of their faces.
They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it, those mermaids are about no good . . . .
Those who know the English Colonies abroad know that we carry with us us our pride, pills, prejudices, Harvey-sauces, cayenne-peppers, and other Lares, making a little Britain wherever we settle down.
She became a perfect Bohemian ere long, herding with people whom it would make your hair stand on end to meet.
Frankness and kindness like Amelia’s were likely to touch even such a hardened little reprobate as Becky. She returned Emmy’s caresses and kind speeches with something very like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine.
He had placed himself at her feet so long that the poor little woman had been accustomed to trample upon him. She didn’t wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.
“. . . had she been worthy of the love I gave her, she would have returned it long ago. It was a fond mistake. Isn’t the whole course of life made up of such? And suppose I had won her, should I not have been disenchanted the day after my victory? Why pine, or be ashamed of my defeat?”
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?

Israel and Palestine: No Justice, No Peace

A democracy founded on equal justice and civil rights for all citizens is a ridiculously utopian vision, but it is also the only realistic solution.

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

—The Balfour Declaration (1917)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 

—Martin Luther King, Jr. (1960s)

No justice, no peace. 

—Slogan used in protests against police violence (from the 1980s)

If God as some now say is dead, He no doubt died of trying to find an equitable solution to the Arab-Jewish problem.

—I. F. Stone (1967)

Impelled by centuries of persecution culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, the State of Israel was established on land captured by Great Britain from the Turkish Ottoman Empire and inhabited for centuries by Arab Palestinians. Despite the Balfour Declaration’s pious but vague stipulation that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” quite a lot was done, and thus in the effort to resolve one gross injustice a second gross injustice was committed and has continued to this day.

“If the Jews give one-tenth the devotion to Arab relations that they’ve given to the land, they can build a secure homeland,” wrote I. F. Stone in 1945. That did not happen. Instead, a political and economic struggle was spun into an ethnic struggle featuring implacable hatred on both sides. The abortive U. N. partition plan of 1947 sparked a war that resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel by force. In 1964 Stone wrote, “The usual Jewish attitude toward the Arabs is one of contemptuous superiority.”

Partition has never been the solution to such conflicts, whether it appears in the form of a wall, a border, a system of apartheid, or endemic prejudice that institutionalizes injustice. No justice, no peace. So long as the State of Israel’s slow-drip ethnic cleansing continues, though the level of violence fluctuates and creates at times the illusion of peace, the war will go on.

There is no reason to expect this atrocious situation to change. It would require extraordinary events and extraordinary leaders—one thinks of F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela—to imagine a better future and bring it into being. What’s needed is not a “two-state solution” but a single inclusive democracy founded on equal justice and civil rights for all citizens, whatever their religious, racial, ethnic, or linguistic differences. That’s a ridiculously utopian vision, but it is also the only realistic solution—not just for Arabs and Israelis, but for all of us, everywhere.

Dear Politicians: Please check the facts and review your prejudices about nuclear energy!

If you are represented by politicians who are liberal or progressive, or if you contribute to environmental organizations like Greenpeace, they need to hear from you about nuclear energy and climate change. Here is my reply to my NDP member of parliament, Laurel Collins, after she responded to my first plea by sending me a link to an op-ed written by another NDP MP, Richard Cannings.

Dear Laurel,

Thanks for your reply and your link to Mr. Cannings’ op-ed about SMRs and nuclear power in general.

Regarding the two most popular fears about nuclear power—accidents and waste, both cited by Mr. Cannings—I would urge both of you to have a look at Nick Touran’s very informative site about these issues and everything else to do with nuclear energy, here: https://whatisnuclear.com. Short answer: both of those fears are overblown.

Mr. Cannings makes the point that nuclear plants take too long to build and that more immediate solutions are needed. I would agree, with the caveat that the best response is not either/or, but both/and. The fact that it takes time to build up nuclear generation capacity should tell us that we need to begin right now!

The other argument against nuclear power—its cost—seems suspect to me. Costs are always (a) comparative, and (b) determined by accounting methods. The costs of not effectively addressing climate change, I would submit, are far, far greater than the up-front investments needed to increase our nuclear energy capacity.

Finally, this is a global problem. Even if we were able to meet Canada’s energy needs without building up our nuclear capacity—a claim I find highly dubious—there is no way that developing economies can modernize their energy infrastructure and provide prosperity to their people without a huge global increase in the use of nuclear energy. Canada should be part of that effort. Embracing that cause would be good for the Canadian economy, for the planet, and for the lives of millions of people around the world.

Again, thanks for writing back. I hope that you and the rest of the NDP will continue to study these issues and be bold enough to revise conclusions that are not supported by the science and the facts.

With my best wishes,

Eric

See also my earlier posts about nuclear energy: “The argument for nuclear power,” and “Nuclear power: safe and economical.”

Krishnamurti: separation is violence

When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom From the Known

You know, actually we have no love — that is a terrible thing to realize. Actually we have no love; we have sentiment; we have emotionality, sensuality, sexuality; we have remembrances of something which we have thought as love. But actually, brutally, we have no love. Because to have love means no violence, no fear, no competition, no ambition. If you had love you will never say, “This is my family.” You may have a family and give them the best you can; but it will not be “your family” which is opposed to the world. If you love, if there is love, there is peace. If you loved, you would educate your child not to be a nationalist, not to have only a technical job and look after his own petty little affairs; you would have no nationality. There would be no divisions of religion, if you loved. But as these things actually exist — not theoretically, but brutally — in this ugly world, it shows that you have no love. Even the love of a mother for her child is not love. If the mother really loved her child, do you think the world would be like this? She would see that he had the right food, the right education, that he was sensitive, that he appreciated beauty, that he was not ambitious, greedy, envious. So the mother, however much she may think she loves her child, does not love the child. So we have not that love.

—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Varanasi 5th Public Talk (28 November 1964)

The Collected Works, Vol. XV

“Where lies the final harbor . . . ?”

There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick. “CHAPTER 114. The Gilder.”

It’s not guns, it’s addiction!

We need a logical, fact-based analysis of the “gun violence problem” in the United States. To begin:

Since we know that guns are not the problem, let’s focus on the real issue: addiction. 

Sex addiction, we know, causes people to shoot up massage parlours. 

Food addiction leads to mass murder at grocery stores. 

Addiction to prayer produces killings in all sorts of houses of worship. 

Shopping addiction leads to killings at malls. 

Video addiction causes murders in movie theatres. 

Sugar addiction would lead to mass murders in candy shops, except that it also causes obesity and lethargy. 

Gun addiction would lead, presumably, to mass murders in gun shops, but we haven’t seen any of that, which confirms what we already knew: guns are not the problem!

Addiction is the problem, and of course, addiction to violence contributes to every one of these specific variations. 

Obviously, we would not have these addiction problems if it weren’t for people. 

Clearly, then, people are the problem. Once we find a way to get rid of all these people, such needless tragedies will cease. 

“A Straw From Victoria” (1866)

“A member of the late Legislature and an important official of Vancouver Island, in a letter to a professional friend in San Francisco, under date of October 22d, says:

“Victoria I have resolved to leave, and to leave in all human probability for ever, unless some more hopeful signs appear in the commercial horizon. • • • There is a general exodus talked of, and I confess with some show of good reason. In my judgment there are, at the present time, upon Wharf street alone, three solvent men—the whole commercial fabric totters to the very foundation, and when the crash comes it will be such as Vancouver Inland has never witnessed before. The failures of the past seven days will amount to over a million dollars. The future looms with dark lowering clouds without a solitary ray of light, unless Vancouver is turned over to the Yankees, in which case a magnificent and glorious harvest lies before us.”

—Marin Journal, Volume 6, Number 34, 3 November 1866

https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=MJ18661103.2.8&srpos=1312&e=-------en--20--1301--txt-txIN-Bogy-------1