Category Archives: Culture views

Turtles All The Way Down

From this Quora question: In a Joe Rogan podcast, mathematician Eric Weinstein stated that the basis of all math is founded upon a few assumptions that cannot be proven. Can someone explain this to me?   One good answer from a frequent Quora poster, Andy Lund: [i]

…… Now suppose you have the number 1 and I give you another number 1, what number do you have? There is no number 1 in the physical universe. There is 1 goldfish, there is 1 oak tree, there is 1 cloud, but there is not just a plain number 1. You cannot just collect some numbers and count how many you have the way you can collect baseball cards. But we know 1+1=2. How do you prove it?

The Greek mathematician Euclid said that any two points can be connected by a line segment. How do you prove such a statement? There are no points in the universe, and no line segments either, only things that approximate points and segments. In fact, Euclid did not even tell us what a point of a line segment is, he just assumes we know what he is talking about. This kind of statement is called an axiom. It is just something that is assumed to be true because it makes sense. It is so basic that there is nothing from which it can be proven……

These assumptions are so basic that they cannot be proven, yet they are the basis for all Euclidean geometry (stuff you can draw on an infinitely large piece of paper). Try it yourself, try to prove any one of Euclid’s axioms. You cannot even show that a circle exists, it doesn’t in any real sense as everything in the real world breaks down at microscopic or subatomic levels. So how can you prove something so basic as any of Euclid’s axioms?

Math is like a tower; each new level is built on the ones below. At the bottom of the tower is the foundation, but what is that built on? It is nothing more than assumptions. Math ain’t turtles all the way down. [ii]  Quora

Hawking’s Equation

Math is the basis for most of modern science from physics to chemistry to the sophisticated statistical analysis of economics, sociology and even psychology. The foundation of the technological marvels of computer science, GPS navigation, the internet, CGI movies, everything that has so emphatically and irreversibly transformed our daily lives, is some complex mathematics.

Once we get past arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra, and basic geometry, maybe a smattering of calculus, the set of people that understands or can explain the math gets a little thin. There may be a few folks (I am not one of them) reading this who can explain and understand the depths of quantum physics or the seemingly simple “Hawking’s equation” that Stephen Hawking derived and put on his tombstone. Hawking’s most important discovery, it calculates entropy or the amount of disorder in a black hole system and changes everything apparently in understanding how the universe changes over time. Who knew? I know what pi means, that’s worth something, right?

All of it below where the turtles live is axiomatic – assumptions — are givens that we understand or intuit as true. Yet we moderns trust these turtles and more and more base our lives on what has been contrived from them. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Just writing this post relies on a laptop that relies on some math quite a few turtles down. And yet have we left something behind in our blind trust that technology and science alone will lead us eventually to the promised land of human perfection? Does this complex tapestry of science, as beautiful and elegant as it may be, contain all the truth we need?  That we will need?

“(T)he good news is that you can rearrange any subject to learn most of it very, very quickly. The bad news is that it will feel terrible because you will be told that you are doing the wrong thing and dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity as a jack of many trades, master of none – but in fact, the problem is that the jack of one trade is the connector of none.”  Eric R. Weinstein

In his essay, “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” Leo Tolstoy writes of the slow, incremental process by which the character Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” decided to kill the old woman. “That question was decided….  When he was doing nothing and was only thinking, when only his consciousness was active: and in that consciousness tiny, tiny alterations were taking place…. Tiny, tiny alterations—-but on them depend the most immense and terrible consequences…and boundless results of unimaginable importance may follow from the most minute alterations occurring in the domain of consciousness.” [iii]

After a few centuries of deeply embedded ideas compiled from Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Hume, and many others, the tiny, tiny alterations accruing in the minds of all of us have changed us. The water in our goldfish bowl has come to be understood as all there is.  What was not that long ago discussed solely in late night sessions in the upper reaches of academia and in sophomore dorm rooms has trickled down to the commonplace axioms of post-modern humanity. We do not acknowledge that a constriction of mind has taken place, but we now operate with the unspoken assumption that only the material world we can see, touch, observe with sophisticated instruments and describe with the language of science matters in any real sense. Is the scientific method the sole crucible in which we can grind away until all is made clear?

Let us imagine that the beauty of metaphor, poetry, art, philosophy, and yes, even theology, also may contain another, a greater, more edifying, and elevated deeper truth. Let us imagine that to acquiesce in our gradually learned self-imprisonment, we have disdained the marvels to be discovered in other disciplines of our mind. In restricting our vision to only that of the science department, let me suggest that our lifelong education has become too purse-mouthed, pinched, squint eyed, and parsimonious – a stingy worldview that constricts and restricts our understanding.

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald was writing of the first Dutch explorers who landed on Manhattan Island, but in his most quoted passage, he was calling all of us to much more than an historical reflection. He was calling us to contemplate our “capacity for wonder.” In this most perplexing winter of 2020/2021, such reflection would be very fruitful for any of us: an ‘aesthetic contemplation’ and a conversation most needed.

We correctly take advantage every day of the giant construct that math and science has raised above the foundation of axioms and self-evident assumptions, but other axioms and their attendant beliefs have been left behind. If we are honest in our ‘aesthetic contemplation,’ other self-evident axioms answer other deeper questions most of us fear to ask because the answers will change our lives and change us.

What is the basis for the intelligibility of the universe that undergirds every aspect of science and math and the insatiable human need to know and understand? Why is the universe intelligible and possessed of an order that allows investigation and not a hot chaotic mess or a void? Why is there something rather than nothing? Below all the turtles where regress finds its base, does there exist an Axiom, an Intelligence and Will beyond our tiny imaginings? An “Ipsum esse subsistens?[iv]

What is basis for beauty and its resonance in the human spirit? All the way down below harmony, color, tone, balance, and perspective, does there exist Beauty itself that can be known?

Intelligibility and Beauty ain’t turtles all the way down.

And we know it.

“As to that which I am ignorant of concerning myself, I remain ignorant of it until my darkness shall be made as the noonday in Your sight.” The Confessions of St. Augustine

[i] https://www.quora.com/In-a-recent-Joe-Rogan-podcast-mathematician-Eric-Weinstein-stated-that-the-basis-of-all-math-is-founded-upon-a-few-assumptions-that-cannot-be-proven-Can-someone-explain-this-to-me

[ii]Turtles all the way down” is an expression of the problem of infinite regress. The saying alludes to the mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports the flat earth on its back. It suggests that this turtle rests on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly large world turtles that continues indefinitely (i.e., “turtles all the way down”) .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

[iii] Thanks to the piece “Tolstoy’s Prosaic Wisdom” by Gary Saul Morson in the Winter Edition 2020 of “Evangelization & Culture, The Journal of the Word on Fire Institute.”

[iv] Ipsum Esse Subsistens is a phrase popularized by Thomas Aquinas, that means the subsistent act of to-be itself. https://ipsumessesubsistens.com/

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The Widening Gyre

“The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws. (from “Rediscovering Lost Values”)” Dr. Martin Luther King

In 1972 my idealism, zeal, and what I came to learn was my naivete, led me to volunteer to participate in the nuts and bolts of activism within a political party rather than the demonstrations to which I previously had  been predisposed. First, we helped staff the survey phones for George McGovern. We were given a list of scripted issue questions, which carefully avoided directly asking for whom the subject planned to vote. After each call, we noted on our call sheet a ranking based on their answers from 1 to 5 with a 1 strongly supporting the other candidate and awarding a 5 if we thought they enthusiastically were on the side of the angels.

After some other tasks like signs and posters, on election day we newbies monitored voters at tables provided for party workers near the presiding officials at the polls. We carefully marked off each voter as they were announced, and late in the afternoon, delivered the marked off lists to our party coordinator. I was assured others would contact voters that favored us and offer them rides to the polls. I was living in Massachusetts, which was the only state the feckless Senator McGovern campaign carried, so I must have done a great job. We felt like insiders who worked the levers. How little did we know. I believe now we were “useful idiots,” as Vlad the First would say.

Years later, I learned through some who  are much more aware of how the world really works (as they are well established elected Democrat machine pols), that what really happened with my marked up list was likely some others more in tune with the party were sent in to vote for those who had not yet showed up. Especially targeted were the elderly and other registered voters known to be unlikely to venture out late in the day. Whether they were tallied in our surveys was irrelevant. Once when I was voting in the nineties before photo IDs were required, I personally witnessed at a polling place in Rhode Island[i] a chartered school bus parked out front in the early evening. A line of tired folks slogging through their civic duty was patiently queued up to reload the bus. One fellow near the front of the line asked another fellow checking names off a clipboard where they were headed next.

Before you grasp your head and moan that I am promulgating voter fraud myths and proposing that President Trump really won, I am not and cannot possibly know. Five hundred odd votes in Florida in Bush/Gore in 2000 are not 146,000 votes in Michigan in 2020. If I truly believed that voter fraud could be perpetrated on such a massive scale, I might despair. [ii]However, to believe that none occurs is to be as naïve as I was fifty years ago. I am a firm supporter of photo IDs, which we now have in Rhode Island, and they are not an onerous burden, as unwelcome as they are to the apparatchiks.

Then, again, tired poll workers may not have matched up signatures on millions of mailed in ballots as diligently as one would hope, and their training as graphologists may have been somewhat perfunctory. Lies and deceit on the scale needed to steal this most recent election seem inconceivable, but I have become a cynic, which is to be nothing more than an oft disappointed idealist.

“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Mark Twain

Lies as morally acceptable in pursuit of desired ideological goals, the ethics of utility, relativism, and radical subjectivism should be considered in any discussion of election fraud. What is justified if our goals are considered (to us anyway) as noble and right? Does the whole democratic (small “d”) project break down when such malleable values are permissible? Are we asking the right questions?

Rita and I are more than a little wonky – no surprise, I am sure, to many of you. One night this week we streamed from a website that Rita found a ninety-minute panel discussion in 2015 between George Weigel and Yoram Hazony, well known writers and thinkers from the U.S. and Israel. A portion of the annual Advanced Institute in Jerusalem of the Tikvah Fund, the 2015 seminars covered in depth “God, Politics, and the Future of Europe.” “Tikvah hosted a conversation on “Modernity, Religion and Morality” to discuss the decline of Western Civilization and to probe some of the reasons behind it. What happens when faith in the God of the Bible deteriorates? How does that affect faith in reason and are the values of liberalism enough to sustain a society?”[iii]  See link in the notes below.

Many topics were touched on which have great relevance to that which so divides our society and whether Biblical morality has been overwhelmed by an aggressive secularization agenda, especially of the left. “Separation of Church and State,” both presenters contended means only no state intrusion into the practice of anyone’s faith (or lack of faith) and no designated state religion. Yet we seem to have decreed through an activist judiciary and press that no conscience informed by its faith has sufficient credentials to speak out on the vital moral issues of the day.  Is religion merely to be privatized, a pleasant, relatively harmless hobby for the weak, and no religiously informed conscience to be considered legitimate in public debate? The late Father Richard John Neuhaus coined a name for this public forum denuded of religion: the “naked public square,” wherein only non-religious voices should be heard. To me, these voices of objective reason informed by centuries of tradition are sorely needed, indeed critical, in a violently divided culture. What G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead” must not be silenced.

In these pages there have been previous discussions of the prerequisite of a morally sound electorate to sustain a democracy[iv]. I will not pursue those arguments again here, but I will suggest that a society deracinated of moral traditions could topple. A hundred years ago, one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, wrote this (first stanza of “Second Coming”), probably his most quoted verse and the source of dozens of titles of blogs and books:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

In our own individual lives and in the life of our mutual and precarious society, has the falcon flown beyond hearing range from the Source of wisdom, prudence, mercy, and justice? Have we pulled up all the essential moorings and, adrift, look helplessly at the rocks and surf? Is our battle spiritual, not merely political and ideological?

With a sigh of relief, maybe we are liberated from four years of turmoil and tweets; we apparently sent the traveling circus train packing and revived the progressive Kool-Aid express in a national election. Or maybe we would benefit from re-reading the fable of the scorpion and the frog[v] and wondering whom we are carrying across the river now.

What we next encounter may be an uncertain future, however the same necessary voices that the progressive vision seeks to marginalize are those which murmur their prayers and talk quietly of hope, trust, kindness, and love for every person from tiny to aged. May these voices be heard, here and now, and by their Source and Benefactor.

Look to yourselves that you do not lose what we worked for but may receive a full recompense. Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.” 2 Jn 8-9

[i] We boast a more than 90% Democrat legislature here in Lil Rhody, a textbook of venal corruption.

[ii] This is not to say that concerns of the defeated should be ignored. All legal means of verification must be pursued to their end. I did some analysis by state, and margins in the closely decided states are razor thin. In Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, (easily enough to change the final results), the average margins per voting precinct are 5.7, 6.1,6.3 and 4.7 respectively. Per thousand voters, the average margins for the same states are 3.2, 2.8, 8.8 and 6.2. A switch of between three and four voters per precinct in these states would flip the outcome. The coronation by the media notwithstanding.

[iii] From the introduction text to the video. Well worth your time some evening when CGI superhero fantasies and the bread and circuses of professional sports are not your viewing pleasure. https://tikvahfund.org/posts/modernity-religion-and-morality-a-conversation-with-george-weigel-and-yoram-hazony/

[iv] https://quovadisblog.net/2020/08/09/quaker-hill/

[v] The scorpion that could not swim asked the frog to carry him on his back across the river. The frog refused because he did not want the scorpion to sting him. The scorpion pointed out that if he did that, both would drown, so the frog agreed to take him across. Halfway across the river the scorpion struck, and the dying frog cried out, “You’ve killed us both. Why did you do it?” The scorpion replied, “Because it is my nature.”

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Transcendent

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo Buonarroti

On Pentecost Sunday in May of 1972, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, attacked with a hammer and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City[i]. He was never charged with a crime, but in a pretrial hearing he was found mentally incompetent. Sentenced to two years in an Italian mental institution out of “One Flew Out of a Cuckoo’s Nest,[ii] he underwent twelve electro-shock treatments, was eventually released, and immediately was deported back to Australia where he faded into obscurity. The Pieta had one exquisite eyelid and the nose of the Blessed Virgin smashed off, her right hand broken to pieces and her left arm and hand smashed and knocked off. A painstaking restoration that took eight months ensued with over a hundred pieces, including many tiny chips carefully collected at the site. Some pieces stolen by tourists at the scene were never recovered and had to be reconstructed.

Why such a massive endeavor of many skilled artists and art historians to fix a busted-up statue[iii] that a madman took a geologist’s hammer to? In just one aspect of the effort, to perfectly match the stone, like a graft in a careful reconstruction of a damaged human being, a small block was removed from her back to reconstruct her nose from the exact mold made of the statue before the attack. Donations from around the world funded the rescue project[iv].

Michelangelo only signed this one sculpture in his life and told others the large block of marble he located after a long search in Tuscan Carrera quarries was the single most perfect piece of stone he had ever found. He began an almost two-year project with a broad chisel and chipped away large pieces of marble. Slowly, carefully with exquisite attention to the least detail, he refined his work to tiny careful strokes with small tools and polishing until, as he once said, only the piece in his vision that had been potential in the stone from the beginning was revealed. From the folds of her garment, the veins in the dead Christ’s arm, the realism of her eyes and suffering of her soul, the Pietà is unique in skill, conception, and accomplishment. Considered by many the most important sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, this marvel merged the classical ideal of beauty with the astonishing naturalism and skill that made his art priceless and irreplaceable. This fortuitous marriage of the natural beauty of marble and genius is unique. No effort at restoration could be too diligent.[v]

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling

Why would the anger and insanity[vi] of an extremely bright troubled man express itself in such radical iconoclasm with a mad passion to destroy beauty? Perhaps that can never be answered either in our current batch of angry iconoclasts or ever. Beauty evokes the transcendent, and beauty is objective in the hearts of human beings. There are subjective modes and varying ideas of what exactly is beautiful, but Beauty itself resonates whether in nature, sculpture, painting, music, or the eyes of our beloved.

“Transcendent” derives from the Latin meaning “climbing over.” From what, we ask? To where, we wonder?  I read recently that we mistake heaven as “somewhere” else, and the more accurate insight is “somehow” else. Not a different place, but a different manner of being entirely outside of time or space.

In a time long ago when Michelangelo, Dante, and Shakespeare roamed the earth, the “transcendentals” were three: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. All were aspects of the nature of God to those who understood themselves to be creatures fashioned in Love. Now we understand ourselves to be lucky sentient conglomerations of organized protoplasm and beneath that random collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum variations and energy fields. Accidentally sentient. Protoplasm organized by Whom, we dare not speak.

As to the True, that has disappeared into a pit of radical skepticism. “There is your truth and my truth and who knows?” The Good has melted away into the miasma of the “dictatorship of relativism.”[vii] “Who are you to tell me how to pursue what I desire, etc.” But Beauty still holds its own, and desecrating beauty still offends some deep aspect of our humanity. And Beauty draws us to God.

Bishop Robert Barron describes this far better in a passage from his newest book, “Renewing Our Hope,”[viii] which I advise you to buy immediately and explore in depth:

”Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be sharply distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying.[ix]  This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather it invades, chooses and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it re-arranges and re-directs subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the Beautiful itself.”

 Well before the war that defined him, Winston Churchill wrote an essay in which he imagined a future where mankind had secured a life of great pleasure, wealth, and convenience. But, Churchill wondered, would that be sufficient for happiness?

Learning to infuse our souls with the reality of the transcendentals Beauty, Goodness and Truth and their Author is the basis for our final happiness.

“What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” Winston Churchill, 1931

[i] https://youtu.be/QmngGZmkPKI

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332613.One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo_s_Nest

[iii] http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/

[iv] Reuters article on the damage and the restoration.

[v] Controversy surrounded the restoration. Some maintained the marks of violence should be left unrepaired to signify the violence of the times. Others said restoration should leave lines and signs of repair for authenticity, but finally due to the uniqueness and precious nature of the work, the decision was to make the restoration as flawless as possible.

[vi] While striking twelve blows with his hammer, Toth alternatively screamed he was Jesus Christ and Michelangelo.

[vii] Phrase from Benedict XVI. “In recent years I find myself noting, how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” Without Roots, Joseph Ratzinger, New York, Basic Books, 2006

[viii] Renewing Our Hope, Robert Barron, Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020, https://bishopbarronbooks.com/renewing-our-hope

[ix]  Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1953

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Magnanimous

“There is nothing like looking if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In two of my favorite Oscar winning Peter O’Toole movies he played the same historical figure, Henry II of England. In the first, “Becket,” the young Henry eventually has his former close friend St. Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton, murdered in the cathedral. Both O’Toole and Burton were nominated for Best Actor for the film. In the second, “Lion in Winter,” late in life, Henry bickers bitterly and poignantly with his exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wonderfully portrayed by Katherine Hepburn; they spar brilliantly over succession among the sons Richard the Lionhearted, Jeffrey and John. John, of course, eventually becomes king after the death of Richard and is the villain of the Robin Hood legends. Battles, conspiracies, crusades, and palace intrigue follow all of them all their lives.

King John, devious, adulterous and with a vindictive pettiness that alienated the nobles of the land was forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter), a foundational document of the Western world. The king for the first time acknowledges that a king too is subject to the law and that his subjects have rights, including a trial by jury and the beginnings of what evolved into a representative parliamentary form of governance.

“Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.”  St. Pope John Paul to thousands of young people in Krakow, Poland, June 1979

The word “magnanimous” is a combination of the same Latin root from the Magna Carta, “magnus” or great and “animus,” meaning soul or mind. “Animus” also gives us animated and animal (self-locomotive as opposed to a vegetable). Magnanimous is ‘great souled’ and has come to connote generous and forgiving. A thesaurus gives us noble, benevolent, and altruistic.

“Pusillanimous” is similarly derived from the Latin root “animus,” but the preceding root “pusill” comes from the Latin meaning “very small,” so the combination produces “small minded” or “tiny souled.” Today it has come to mean “lacking determination” or “lacking courage.”  The same thesaurus suggests spineless or cowardly.

Since human beings are uniquely in possession of souls, it matters whether ours are great or tiny. Inextricable from our bodies, we are not ghosts imprisoned in machines. Souls are without material existence, and their fusion with material bodies causes no end of complication and sin, original and actual. Our bodies crave food, comfort, pleasure, protection and retain a controlling drive to propagate other bodies a lot like our own. Our long-suffering souls contend with our material cravings all our short mortal lives seeking wholeness and holiness. Our bodies consist of the same elements that comprise the rest of the universe, forged in the stars and spewed out in vast volume every millisecond of the thirteen billion years of known time. We are spirit and material: stardust and soul.

Pusillanimity and tiny souls seem to govern our public discourse and especially in media, social or otherwise. Whether the ‘cancel culture’ or COVID controversies or environmental crises or proper governance or religion or even what is good for us to eat, our predilection for unreflective rote, rancorous and repetitive talking points in lieu of thoughtful discourse in pursuit of an objective understanding of our perilous situation is disheartening and portends no good outcome.

We have a desperate want for some more great souls: some new beginning with the magnanimous, starting with our own tiny souls and then among our leaders on all sides.

Our ephemeral and ever-changing challenges flood in from every streaming stimuli and seem daunting enough, but that ain’t the half of it. Some recent articles suggest we have more pressing long-term challenges that make COVID, destroying and denying history, neo-Nazi white supremacy, neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter, and defunding police seem like easily resolved minor troubles and soon to be footnotes.

 

“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began,

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire…” Rudyard Kipling

 

 To quote the great philosopher Ian Malcolm in the movie “Jurassic Park”: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should. Indeed, “should” or “ought” appear to have lost their cache altogether. Moral relativism and a narrow material view of our existence without metaphysics have the podium and the gavel and no inclination to give them up.

One article on Science.com laid waste to the soothing idea that CRISPR technology gene tinkering with human embryos was the work of a single rogue Chinese scientist a couple of years ago. And he conveniently disappeared as inconvenient people tend to do in the People’s Republic. Read CRISPR Gene Editing Prompts Chaos in DNA of Human Embryos about recent experiments on human embryos at the Francis Crick Institute, Columbia University and the Oregon Health and Science Institute. The researchers were concerned that although the experimenters were able to successfully ‘fix’ some troubling genes, there was significant disruption and damage to adjacent gene pairs that were unpredictable in their impact. Maybe future tinkering will make us better at it and avoid the troubling unintended collateral damage? They were careful to point out that there was care and concern that the embryos should not be allowed to develop further into larger specimens of human beings, so destroying them after the experiments was essential. Of course, the underlying assumption that experimenting on undeveloped human beings and destroying them was not particularly morally problematic. We have been destroying human embryos routinely for forty years and calling it woman’s healthcare.

In another article[i] and website[ii], the progressive future of humankind was proposed to offer a way forward to a new perfected kind of human being: immortal, always healthy, more brilliant, and stronger. Perfecting CRISPR was only part of the solution; a hybrid human being with some experiments already underway for embedding chips providing us with ready-made super memories crammed full of immediate access to all manner of useful information. Combined with corrected genes helping to make the vexing protoplasm portion of the mix more perfect, we will create a progressive vision of human perfectibility and utopian society. We have tried this many times with murderous results, but we will get it right this time[iii].  Our future children will have just cause to sue parents who do not optimize their genes when they had the chance in the Petrie dishes prior to implantation.

[iv]“Brave New World” is an anodyne fairy tale compared to this. Tilt back the recliner, make some popcorn, pour a cold beer and watch “Jurassic Park” or “Young Frankenstein” for some laughs.  Maybe listen to Ian Malcolm again.

Or pray for a return of a magnanimous, courageous, and determined moral leadership.

“Look not in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with your hand on the helm! Turn not your back to the compass…” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

[i] Give “Covid-19 Is Accelerating Human Transformation—Let’s Not Waste It: The Neobiological Revolution is here. Now’s the time to put lessons from the Digital Revolution to use.” a quick read.

[ii] The futurist idealists have a perfected super race in mind for us. I think we may have seen this before, perhaps in mid twentieth century Germany. Browse this site or buy the book if you want and see what they have in store for us: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species.

[iii] The overly familiar line about not forgetting history because we will be doomed to repeat it is often misattributed to Winston Churchill. It originated with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in “The Life of Reason, Volume 1.” In context, Santayana cautions us that retention of learning is necessary, as is “plasticity” to use that learning to adapt to new situations. When we are young, the tendency is to radical intemperate change without considering the wisdom of the past. And when we are old, the tendency is to hold on too rigidly and not be open to self-criticism, reflection, and necessary beneficial change. The ideal is mature adulthood with a balance of both he states.

Churchill was less optimistic that we learned our lessons. In a 1936 speech to the House of Commons, he warns of the coming cataclysm: When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.

 

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Truth Over Facts

“We choose truth over facts!”  from a former Vice President Joe Biden campaign speech[i]

Mistakenly believed to be one of Joe Biden’s frequent verbal gaffes, his talking point is instructive and defines the reality of political life across the ideological spectrum: the narrative is all encompassing. The truth is what we say it is, and the facts be damned. Facts, particularly statistics, [ii]are leavened, kneaded, baked, and circulated to influence the social media mob and especially voters to push us to get off our recliners and out of our summer hammocks. Confusion thrives: what has suffered most is universal credibility. We do not believe much of what we see and hear. We strive to discern what to believe out of the onslaught of data and information that hits our screens and speakers every day. But more often, we filter what we read and hear through our “mythscape,” our accepted narrative, retain what fits it and reject what does not. We give that filtering a serious sounding name: “confirmation bias,” but attribute it as a shortcoming of others and never one of our own.

A project manager with two large apartment construction contracts going once emailed me[iii] on a Friday afternoon after an exceptionally outrageous week, “Would someone please throw a tent over this circus?” It stuck immediately as the motto of our group, and it seems to me suits our current situation.

“Would someone please throw a tent over this circus!”

George Weigel in his excellent 2018 book, “Fragility of Order,” comments on the historian Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the First World War that in so many ways was not only the first act of the bloodiest century  of human history, but like all good plays, was what spawned so much of  what followed. “Christopher Clark usefully reminds us that, in seeking to understand how such a cataclysm could have begun, we must reckon with the fact that all the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims.” When we filter our new experience through our “mythscape,” we merely render social media debate farcical. However, when our leaders will not (or lack the ability to) put in the hard work, study, and introspection necessary to understand complex reality and then offer us their banal wisdom as predictable regurgitation of their narrative, disasters inevitably follow.

”Order, it has become clear, is a very fragile thing; and order is especially vulnerable under the cultural conditions of a postmodern world unsure about its grasp on the truth of anything.” George Weigel from the introduction to “The Fragility of Order.” Ignatius Press, 2018

We tend to hold our beliefs as binary: One predominant narrative without exception or the other. Is it not possible that reasoned arguments could be made, listening could be our first response, and the purpose of discussion is to put aside our embedded presuppositions and work mutually to discover some objective truth about these matters? Every issue seems to bleed over into rote political diatribes and expands quickly into all the contending issues.  We start out talking about racial injustice and within a sentence or two we are citing the talking points of Trumpism or anti-Trumpism, transgender pronouns and abortion. As an exercise, sticking to one subject means examining some of the assumptions of both common narratives regarding one complex emotional issue.    

The current frenzied muddle of destroyed statues, looted stores, brutally slain arrested men, sincere non-violent protestors, and pandering politicians wearing Ghanaian Kente ceremonial cloths is just the most recent version, albeit a poignant and troublesome one. Because it has become a circus, does not mean we just can wait it out until the next headline grabbing tragedy pushes it below the fold of the front page.

One narrative’s axiom is that the police are hunting and shooting black men, so the cops should be defunded and gutted with the money being redistributed to social programs. A common statistic cited is that a black man is 2.5 times more likely to be shot by a cop than a white one. Is that a valid reading of the numbers? On first look, black men comprise 6% of the population and are consistently year after year 23% to 25% of those killed by police while being arrested,[iv] so that makes sense. On a second look, black men account for 53% of the murder arrests in a year and 52% of robberies. [v]Most of those crimes are black on black. An in-depth Harvard Economics study in 2018 by Roland Fryer, found no evidence of racial trends in those killed by police once arrest statistics were factored in.[vi]

Perhaps what needs to be looked at is how the poverty and desperation and alienation of black men account for such a high percentage of violent crime. A major contributing factor is that over 72% of black children are raised in single family homes, up from 21% in 1960. [vii]While children in single family homes are up across all demographics, in black families, it is a catastrophic rise. Another study found that for every 10% increase in the rate of single parent households, there is a 17% rise in crime rates. Study after study shows the best environment for children regarding educational and career success as well as lower incarceration rates and almost all other indices is a household with both a father and a mother. Not even close. A single mother is five times more likely to wind up below the poverty line than one with a spouse.

As we redistribute funds from police services to social programs, we must try to anticipate the unintended consequences of those programs.[viii] After Lyndon Johnson’s poverty and welfare programs became institutionalized with their “no man in the house” rule as a qualifier to  receive aid, the single-family rate among the poor in general and especially in black families soared.   Great care must be taken in designing salvation from the government, and most of all with programs that have a hidden agenda to secure votes.[ix]

Surveys also show most law-abiding black citizens with high violent crime rates in their neighborhoods do not want to see a lowered police presence.[x] When terrorists with semi-automatic weapons start killing dozens in night clubs in Miami or country concerts in Las Vegas or someone is cruising our streets murdering our neighbors in drive-by shootings, do we really want the best option to be sending in the community organizers?

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” –- Helen Keller  

 Now fairness demands an examination of one of the alternative narrative’s truisms: that there is no evidence of systemic racism and unjustified excessive police force employed against minorities.  The same Harvard study that finds no racial trends in those killed by police shows remarkable racial tendencies in the use of force, excessive or otherwise, during confrontations with police. So, shootings, no correlation, which is not surprising when we realize that those decisions are made in fractions of a second as a response to a perceived threat. But there is a full 50% increased chance of force being used by police against minorities than against white suspects. Is this due to minorities offering resistance or seeking confrontation? The study found that among those who remain compliant during police interactions, there is a 21% greater risk of force being used against minorities. Black men are not being unreasonable when they are wary about any interaction with police.  Whether that is evidence of rogue cops that are not culled from the troop due to over-protective unions or timid supervisors or whether it is evidence of systemic racism is not addressed by the study, but the statistics are clear.

When we consider that some of the most egregious recent examples of deaths of black men caused by police are not shootings, but arrests gone bad, the propensity for police using force with minorities gives us great cause for concern. George Floyd was killed when a cop knelt on his neck and throttled his breathing for eight and a half minutes. Eric Garner died in a police choke hold in NYC in 2014. Nor are white men exempt from excessive force. Joseph Hutchinson was killed when a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy knelt on his neck, cutting off his breath after he acted erratically in a police station. The rules need to change on proper use of force in every department and police officers with disciplinary actions against them for excessive force need to find another job or go to jail. Some things are one and out.

For those of us sheltered from the black experience, several recent articles call out an inherent bias built into our assumptions if we are not black, no matter how innocent we judge ourselves to be of it. A black Catholic priest tells of being in a grocery store in his ‘civvies’ without his collar and being followed around by security, and that this was not a unique experience for him. A black off duty policeman out of uniform tells of being pulled over by other police several times when he was driving through a white neighborhood and breaking no traffic laws.

The most moving was an enlightening article explaining what is meant by white privilege by a professional young black writer chronicling  her experiences growing up and in school at UCLA and Harvard.[xi] She relates in detail the incidents that are most illustrative, then ends each with a quote to tie them together. Below are a few of those quotes. I cannot do the article’s detail justice; please take the time to read it. White privilege was something I told myself was exaggerated. I was wrong.

  • if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.
  • if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.
  • if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

A personal anecdote causes me no small embarrassment. Recently I was waiting at a busy discount gas outlet. The lines were long. Two ahead of me was a sparkling luxury car worth five times more than any auto I have ever owned. The line was held up as the fueling of the sedan was taking a long time, and I was growing increasingly impatient. I could not see the person pumping gas. When it was full, the owner moved to return the hose to the pump, and the driver was a younger black guy.  I was resentful of the wait and of the luxury car owner. Was my first thought that he was a partner in a law firm or managed a portion of a hedge fund or owned a real estate development company or was a cardiac surgeon? No. My first thought was wondering if he played for the Patriots or the Red Sox, and if I recognized him. My assumption was not what it may have been had he been a young white guy holding up the line.

I congratulate myself that I’ve never worn a white sheet and pointy hat; I’ve never knowingly discriminated against anyone in the workplace or socially because of race; I’ve demonstrated for civil rights: I am superior to those that do espouse such ignorant and mean spirited beliefs, right? But am I free of innate prejudice buried deep? I think not. I have more listening to do. A lot more listening to do.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. . . . And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn


[i] Jolting Joe and his Freudian slip.

[ii] Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

[iii] For younger readers, emailing was what we did last century instead of texting or posting pictures on Instagram.

[iv] See Washington Post comprehensive compilation of all police caused deaths. I put the listing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to analyze with a Pivot Table.  Every name, every weapon they carried, if any, how they died and their race. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/

[v] Here is a link to the FBI tracking of crime rates for various offenses by race. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/topic-pages/tables/table-43 Consistent percentages within a narrow range since 2015. The latest complete one is 2018, which I also put into a spreadsheet to do some analysis. I’ll email those downloaded spreadsheets with the totals to  anyone who  wants them.

[vi] Here is the abstract from the Harvard study: This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On nonlethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences either in the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of whom have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.

The full report can be found easily on line in PDF form at this link: https://www.nber.org/papers/w24238

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_family_structure

[viii] When Rita was working as a student nurse at the old inner city Boston City Hospital, the head nurse on her floor with thirty years’ experience was discussing the new Johnson Aid to  Families with Dependent Children war on poverty welfare program with its ‘no man in the house’ restriction on which families could collect. She presciently told Rita that it would be the ruination of the black family. Truer words, etc.

[ix] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/lbj-voting-democratic/

[x] https://www.wsj.com/articles/america-has-a-silent-black-majority-11592348214

[xi] https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2017/09/08/my-white-friend-asked-me-on-facebook-to-explain-white-privilege-i-decided-to-be-honest/

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Pharming for Profit Part Three

“First you make people believe they have a problem, and then you sell them the solution. That’s how advertising works. Every snake oil salesman knows that.” Oliver Markus Malloy, Bad Choices Make Good Stories – Finding Happiness in Los Angeles[i]

In 1951 Margaret Sanger had a dream and met her willing partner Dr. Gregory Pincus. They solicited funding from some of the biggest foundations in the world by riding the perfect wave driven by three powerful winds: the large group of  post WWII women in the workforce who wanted to pursue careers, the feverish concern of an  influential lobby about population growth and eugenics [ii](to rid the world of less than perfect people and undesirable breeders – minorities and the disabled). The Rockefellers, Ford Foundation, Shell Oil and others signed on; Sanger and Pincus had the money to build their wagon.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurial Pincus, the Federal Drug Administration of the late fifties was an underfunded paper tiger.[iii] When Pincus had his prototype, they needed some testing. One of their enabling funders, Katharine McCormick, International Harvester heiress, wrote to Sanger at the time that they needed a “cage of ovulating females to experiment with.” Sanger wrote back that they had their cage amongst the poorest of the poor in Puerto Rico: uninformed and exploited guinea pigs for a dangerous drug. They tested their new wonder drug on 132 unsuspecting women in Puerto Rico in 1956 who were not told they were part of a test, just that this magic would help them to not have children.  Five of these women died and were buried hastily without an autopsy. As a result of their very limited testing they got their miracle pill Enovid a quick approval just before the thalidomide controversy erupted. A drug that has grown to millions of users and billions in sales that is taken by some daily for decades and may take 8 to 12 years for side effects to show up was tested for twelve months on 132 subjects with negative results ignored or minimized to the regulators. With millions of users currently taking the Pill, more than 132 die each year from blood clot induced stroke and heart attacks

By the time the many years of the Nelson hearings in the Senate started in 1967 that exposed the dangers of the Pill, the suppression of evidence, smearing attacks on those presenting it and a tsunami of cultural influences from the so called Sexual Revolution made arresting the growth of its use impossible. But wait, of course, the modern pill has a lower content of the synthetic estrogen that affects almost every biological system in the human body, right? True enough, and Bayer the manufacturer of the most widely used versions of the Pill, Yaz and Yazmin, has settled over 18,000 lawsuits for over $2 billion for blood clotting incidents for Yaz, some of them fatal.[iv]

“This is the first time in medicine’s history the drug industry has placed at our disposal a powerful, disease-producing chemical for use in the healthy rather than the sick.” Dr. Herbert Ratner, Senate “Nelson Pill Hearings,” 1970

Big Pharma’s spin machine has never been more effective than in covering their trail (and posterior anatomy) concerning the dangers of the Pill. Their political and media allies, the deep pockets of Planned Parenthood and their bedfellows in the medical profession (who have a vested interest in their own backsides) all work in harmony to keep this under many wraps.  This is far too limited a venue for any comprehensive expose of the proven health risks, so I recommend if you have interest (are a women or love a woman who may be taking this stuff) that you read investigative reporter Mike Gaskins’ excellent book published last year, “In The Name of The Pill.”[v] If you have interest in the cultural impact of the Pill, a brilliant resource was written by Mary Eberstadt[vi], “Adam and Eve after the Pill.”

Since estrogen is a powerful hormone that affects virtually very function and system in the body, it is not a surprise that a wide variety of potential side effects exist. Many of them are debilitating or life threatening.  A brief bullet point list may give you pause based on many studies published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet and other prestigious medical publications:

  • Estrogen based oral contraceptives are listed as a Group 1 (definite) carcinogen by the World Health Organization.[vii] Especially breast cancer.
  • Known in many studies to:[viii]
    • Increase the risk of thrombosis (blood clots that cause strokes, heart attacks and death).
    • Higher risk of diabetes and arterial sclerosis.
    • Higher risk of lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
    • Increased migraines.
    • Increased risk of genetic damage.
    • Risk of permanent infertility. The lining of the uterus ages at almost twice the rate of non-pill users and changes occur in the cervix as well. Not to count the sterilizing effects of STD’s, which unsurprisingly have exploded since the advent of the Pill.
    • Increased risk of multiple sclerosis.
    • Increased risk of Crohn’s disease.
    • Higher incidence of depression along with a decrease in libido and a higher suicide rate.

This toxicity is handed out to single women, teenagers, married women and anybody who walks through the door to maintain career paths, limit or prevent childbearing and even to treat premenstrual cramping and acne. The Pill is prescribed to kids with or without notice to or the agreement of parents because as a sacrament of progressive ideology, they can be prescribed without telling or even over the objection of parents. Some parents, of course, fear an unplanned pregnancy that could short circuit their aspiring scholar’s career path and seek these chemicals for their children. How many are aware of the risks?  However, a teenager can get this stuff almost as readily as they get a package of Skittles at the pharmacy.

Possibly the best is yet to come and has already shown its effects on the water supply. Millions of women taking the Pill urinate into wastewater, and the minuteness of the passed through unmetabolized estrogen molecules bypasses filters in older treatment plants and gets into the aquifer, streams and rivers. Fish fertility[ix] and human male sperm count has been drastically altered as a result of higher levels of synthetic estrogen in our water. One study showed human male sperm count has dropped by half since 1973 and the wide use of the pill. Synthetic estrogen as found in the pill has been shown to make profound biological changes at levels 50 to 100 times less than natural estrogen. These are extraordinarily powerful chemicals.

Please before I get angry emails and comments, I invite you to do your own research, get the documents from the Nelson hearings, or read some books on the subject. The perfect multiple partnership of the profits of drug companies, the medical professionals who receive perks from big pharma and keep their patients contented with magic pills, the ideology of woman’s rights and even the environmental advocates of population control all conspire against the real health of women. And men.

“You cannot long knock any natural system out of balance without doing some harm – whether it shows up immediately or years later. Furthermore, many of these pill-caused metabolic disturbances are progressive. The longer a woman stays on the pill, the more her laboratory tests are altered.” From Barbara Seamans – Nelson hearings.

[i] Picture is from the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” (Potion of love) Wild West interpretation.

[ii] Read older posts from this blog, Maggie 1 and Maggie 2 about Margaret Sanger. Or read Angela Frank’s terrific biography of the “hero of Planned Parenthood”: Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy

[iii] This changed in the early sixties when the thalidomide disaster that swept Europe and to a much lesser degree in the United States precipitated a vastly more robust agency. Only the heroics of Dr. Frances Kelsey at the old FDA prevented the American approval of the morning sickness prevention drug that caused thousands of birth defects and babies without arms and legs. She was slandered repeatedly by the drug industry and their political allies for refusing to sign off on thalidomide.

[iv] See: https://www.drugwatch.com/yaz/settlements/

[v] In The Name of The Pill, 2019, Mike Gaskins

[vi] Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Mary Eberstadt, Ignatius Press, 2012

[vii] https://althealthworks.com/13353/26-carcinogens-according-to-the-world-health-organization-you-need-to-know-aboutyelena/

[viii] Aware of Mark Twain’s precautionary remark that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics,” I’ll point out the typical defense of the spin masters. While those with concerns will state accurately that the risk for clot induced stroke and heart attack is doubled in women taking the Pill, defenders will state that double the risk really means increasing the incidence from 1 in 10,000 to 2-4 per 10,000, which is also true. How do we interpret such radically opposed presentation of the same facts? How about this? With thirteen million Pill users just in the U.S. that tiny increase in risk translates to an additional 3,900 women a year stricken. 3,900 mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters and sisters. Acceptable risk? Sure, no medication is without risk they’ll tell us. Unless, perhaps, you know and love one of them.

[ix] One USGS survey in the Shenandoah found 20% of male fish growing eggs in their testes and much evidence with the feminization of the male and a radical male and female imbalance, threatening to wipe out whole species in some local environs.

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Privacy

“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”  David Sedaris

At the end of the year, the good folks at Alphabet kindly shared my Google history for 2019 with me, and Google Maps sent me the link to every place I had been.[i] In detail. I drill down and follow a walk around the wildlife refuge or a ride to Dummer’s Beach Campground in Maine practically minute by minute with every stop, lingering moment or digression along the way. The good folks at Amazon Kindle showed me how to access my reading history on any of their devices or apps. Page turns, how long I typically hung out on a page or a paragraph, what caught my attention or sent me off on a related search; the words I looked up, and those I didn’t. Google let me know every place I had been while sitting in my home and touring the web. They obligingly tell me exactly how to delete my browsing or reading or traveling history, so I will not be able to find it. Reassuring as that may seem to me, they will have not lost the trail. Our ubiquitous Smart TVs, wired homes, food processors, refrigerators, autos, Alexa genies, Facebook likes and dislikes help accrue our unique data trail that is dogged as if with trained bloodhounds which pick up scents in parts per million with exponentially more sensitive noses than mere human ones. The tracker hounds scour the hints with their autodidact algorithms, digging, digging, sniffing, finding.

The so helpful convenience of an always on phone gathers it all: should we want directions, or an elusive half remembered factoid, or something to eat; they will store every scrap, then load it all up into massive redundant servers in remote locations, protected like nuclear waste sites waiting for inevitable leaks. Along with everyone else’s trails: your movements, internet searches, left or right clicks, intentional or not, where you spent extra time, what you read, what branches of knowledge or information you explored, products you bought or considered, texts and emails saved and deleted, hopes, dreams, fantasies, curiosities. Everything. Every moment. Wherever you were or hoped to be. How many times do we need to mention something in a personal email or click over briefly to a link in futile hope of secrecy, then be inundated for days with related ads or invitations before we grasp this?  

What was once reserved for an omniscient Being, now is in megabytes and relentlessly analyzed, mined, sold and exploited for gain by a constantly evolving, learning, metastasizing artificial intelligence with almost limitless resources. Omniscience as merchandise. All to benefit us, to convenience us, to keep us in the loop, to “customize our experience.”

Privacy is myth if you are or ever have been connected. And who hasn’t?  The horse has fled as if from a fire, the barn door is not just open but missing – gone, a void.

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Louis Brandeis (dissent in Olmstead vs U.S., 1928)

But what is privacy exactly? Everyone has their own translation. Privacy can mean freedom from restraint, license to do what we want to do free from scrutiny. Privacy has been construed in a wide range: from polite decorum and merely keeping private conversations closed off from the eager ears of gossips to graphic and addictive pornography accessible to young people or even to subverting the law such as those that once attempted to regulate abortion.[ii]

While we hold privacy dear and most dear for ourselves, we take hidden pleasure in the exposure of the titillating shame of others, especially disgraced heroes or enemies. Think Jeffrey Epstein. Few of us are truly unburdened from schadenfreude[iii]. Privacy as a shield to do what is shameful or privacy ripped away as a weapon to destroy another person’s reputation. Clearly the privacy we all desire is not always welcome when contemplating the juicy embarrassment of another.

Is the cloak of privacy or its loss a simple thing? Perhaps not. Can conscience be muted with privacy indulged too long? Perhaps so. We need to take great care in the shadows.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice. (She was so much surprised, that for the moment, she quite forgot how to speak English).”               Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass


[i] No doubt at the behest of Alphabet’s army of lawyers to cover their backsides of liability for selling oceans of data collected on their customers for large profits. It is possible to shut off such tracking, but how can one ever truly determine that? There are many articles on this. Here’s just one: https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-google-know-about-me-search-history-delete-2019-10

[ii] In the much debated Roe V Wade decision and its successors that prohibited any state law restricting abortion for any reason or no reason, the basis of the decision was a ‘right to privacy’ not found explicitly in the Constitution, but relying mostly on prior decisions such as Griswold V State of Connecticut.  In Griswold, Justice Douglas “discovered” (some would say created out of whole cloth) a right to privacy based on ‘penumbras’ (from the Latin paene umbra, meaning “almost a shadow”) and ‘emanations’ of other explicitly delineated constitutional rights. A reliance on such a dubious contrivance, previously undiscovered in 176 years of jurisprudence, allows almost anything. Judicial activism in service of an ideology at its most blatant.

[iii] Schadenfreude is the terrific German word for taking joy from the suffering of our enemies.

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‘Lead Kindly Light’ In a Culture of Contempt

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.” St. John Henry Newman

Two of the most effective couple’s therapists in the country have saved thousands of marriages in their careers. They watch new clients most carefully for signs. One as it turns out is the most troubling to them. Observed as one spouse talks about the other, divorce is reliably predicted within a year or two if not healed, if not forgiven. Not screaming or arms crossed silence, not tears or obscenity, but derisive eye rolling is the sign of the most significant damage.

Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman have been in the forefront of studies and counseling for couples for decades. Cofounders of The Gottman Institute, they have created “The Art and Science of Love” weekend workshops for couples and have written bestselling books on the subject, including “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.” Dr. Gottman was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century.

They have written much on the four signs of trouble that must be remedied [i]in a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The most destructive of these is contempt with eye rolling its signature. Contempt is a deadly habit in any relationship and the most dreadful communication threshold to cross. Once crossed, it is most difficult to cross back. Memories and pain are soul deep when our very humanity has been violated, when the basic dignity and respect due to us as human beings has been nullified by the person we ought most be able to trust and to whom we have made ourselves most vulnerable and intimate. Our humanity and personhood have been denied. Contempt is chilly disgust, not hot anger. At least with anger, there is emotion and a sense of importance to the argument. With contempt, even the ashes grow cold.

“Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made for kissing, lady, not for contempt.” Richard III, William Shakespeare

Gustave Dore illustration for Dante’s Inferno

Dante in his “Inferno” depicts not fire at the deepest level of Hell, but ice, and the immensely powerful Satan frozen in it. Just as contempt signals the death of a marriage, contempt in our public discourse and relationships signals a death as well. A visit to Facebook or other social media makes it apparent that political enemies rarely engage in debate, civil or otherwise. The opposition from either side of the divide does not hate those with whom they disagree; they de-humanize them; they despise them. They are not wrong or ill-informed or capable of learning or worthy of an attempt to teach them; they are stupid and evil: “morons” or “Nazis” with no room for discussion. And it is ripping us and our culture apart.

In Dr. Robert George’s book, “Conscience and Its Enemies[ii]  he describes three pillars of any decent society:

  • Respect for the human person – the individual human being and his dignity.
  • Institution of the family, indispensable for modeling, teaching and training decent behavior.
  • A fair and effective system of law and government.[iii]

The most fundamental of these is respect for the human person. Absent that, neither the family nor government on its own can make up the forfeited ground. Once respect and regard for one another is lost, the great divide and breakdown of the culture are inevitable. As Dr. George wrote, “When liberal democratic regimes go awry, it is often because a utilitarian ethic reduces the human person to a means rather than an end to which other things, including the systems and institutions of the law, education and the economy, are means.” Disdain for one another expressed publicly reduces those with whom we disagree to dehumanized objects of that contempt. Our political divide so often lamented is a trailing indicator.

A paper in 2019 entitled “Lethal Mass Partisanship” and reported in the New York Times found that 42% of people in both parties view the opposition as “downright evil” and 20% in both parties believe the opposition members “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans think on occasion that the country “would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.” Finally, “What if the opposing party won the 2020 election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said “violence would be justified on a scale from “a little to a lot.” Clearly this is not a passing social media trend.

We hear often about a lack of civility in our debates. Mere civility is too feeble a contraption by a wide gap — timid and insufficient to overcome outright disregard for the humanity of our political rival. What can be done? What must be done if this great experiment of ours is to survive?  

 “Man has often lost his way, but modern man has lost his address.” G.K. Chesterton

Dr. Arthur Brooks, social scientist and former President of the American Enterprise Institute, now teaches courses at Harvard about loving one’s enemies as the solution. From the left or the right makes no difference. In case that advice seems familiar, as old as Scripture, well, it is.  He converted to Catholicism when he was sixteen on a family visit to Mexico City and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Dr. Brooks is a team member of Bishop Robert Baron’s “Word on Fire Institute.” For many years, he has consulted with and is a friend of the Dalai Lama, who helped inform his worldview. His recommendation is both urgent and kind. He is better speaking for himself in this short PBS interview with Judy Woodruff. Better yet is this longer talk he recently gave which outlines some of the nuts and bolts of his suggested solutions from his book, “Love Your Enemies.”[iv]

As the cliché states, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and rare is the person who has not piled on during a social media exchange, including me. Let’s throw the flag for late hits at ourselves and try to do just a bit better. A simple and elegant commitment we could all make suggested by Dr. Brooks is similar to what the Gottman team recommends for couples headed for divorce. Before acting out on those cutting impulses, do the following: make five positive comments about the other person before you hammer them and engage that oh so justified self-righteous indignation.

We find after the five building-up remarks about what’s good in the other person, our vindictive lower self will slink back into its corner and sleep. In fact, one or two will probably put the monster away. Now finding five positive things about Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump may be a bridge too far for you, but presumably the social media friend who posts about them must have friend history with us sufficient to be able to comment on the reasons they are friends in the first place. Say a prayer for the politicians, but good will towards your on-line or personal contact should be easy to find. If you can’t, keep your counsel to yourself. After all, no one, ever, has had their opinion changed on a gut ideological or political issue by a Facebook post.

If five positive comments seems too formulaic and simplistic, we could all commit to an alternative: look in the mirror. If who looks back at you is without fault, unfailingly brilliant and error free, then jump right on that post and wail away. Of course, anyone espousing such dangerous drivel is an idiot, a moron, in league with the devil or at least Hitler; they deserve the snarkiest, most clever and condescending blow you can deliver. If however you see a human being in the mirror engaged in their own desperate struggle known only to themselves and their most intimate friends, then pull up and find some solace or positive comment to let the others know that you know they are human beings doing the best they can to understand and to cope with a confusing world.

Dante’s hell may have Satan fixed in ice, but he is busy at work, cunning, and he picks his targets with telling effect.

“It can never be too strongly emphasized that the crisis which Western man is undergoing today is a metaphysical one; there is probably no more dangerous illusion than that of imagining that some readjustment of social or institutional conditions could suffice of itself to appease a contemporary sense of disquiet which rises, in fact, from the very depths of man’s being.” Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)


[i] The Four Horsemen: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

[ii] Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. “Conscience and Its Enemies” Dr. Robert George, ISI Books, Paperback Edition 2016

[iii] Benjamin Franklin quipped that democracy (without checks and balances) was two wolves and a sheep sitting down to discuss what’s for dinner. Checks and balances are not primarily found in the Constitution but in the human heart and human friendship.  Dr. Gerard Mundy wrote last year: “Writing in 1957, Russell Kirk argued that love of, and attachment to, community are native to the American spirit. ‘Our city, township, and county governments; our flourishing voluntary associations; our innumerable fraternal and charitable bodies—these are the forms which have been realized by our desire for true community.’ Indeed, it is necessary that the six communal institutions—the nuclear family, the extended family, the neighborhood, the church, the voluntary association, and the employment/workplace association—are healthy, for government cannot by its nature alone teach morality without devolving into totalitarianism.”(Public Discourse essay by Dr. Gerard Mundy https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2019/10/56308/)   

[iv] “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt”  Dr. Arthur Brooks, Harper Collins, 2019

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Going To The Dogs

“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” Aldous Huxley

Deluged in conflicting statistics, we have become inured to shock and confirmed in our protective cocoon of skepticism. Occasionally, however, a set of statistics stops me cold. I read the other day that there are just under ninety million dogs in the United States along with over ninety-four million cats.[i] Juxtaposed with other readily available statistics, that one gave me pause. For instance, there are around eighty-two million human beings under the age of twenty in our country.[ii] So, we have many more dogs than young people. And the ratio of dogs to young people has climbed appreciably year after year. What does that say to us?  Or about us?[iii]

Now before you tag me with the ‘dog hater’ label, I like dogs, having had dog pets both as a kid and as an adult.  I am curious though as to the implications of the statistics. Let’s look together at some other stats that may bear on our discussion.

Our United States fertility rate in 2017 was 1,765.5, or just over seventeen hundred babies born per thousand women over their lifetimes.[iv] To sustain our population at current levels takes 2,100. Since we are also living longer, like almost all the countries in the Western world we have an aging population. What does that forecast for social programs like Social Security and Medicare? Just after the Second World War in 1945, there were forty-one workers contributing to the funds for every retiree. Today that number is below 2.9 and projected to be 2.3 by 2030. Thus, there is much talk about correcting these programs, but so far not the political will to take the necessary and painful steps to fix them.

The fertility rates vary widely from state to state. The more left leaning states most disinclined politically to adjust the social services problem are in the Northeast and West Coast; they also trail the pack with the lowest fertility rates. Why progressives are having far fewer children than more moderate and conservative citizens is another topic worth exploring.  Not to succumb to the distractions of cowardly politicians, but as John Adams so famously stated, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

One would think that fewer children must mean we treat the children we do have much better, with greater consideration and commitment to our relationships between the parents and to the children’s well-being, right? Well, sometimes. In aggregate, though, since 1970 and the advent of the paradigm shift in our culture regarding child bearing and marriage for life, the percentage of children being raised by someone other than their biological parents in a first marriage has doubled from 27% to 54%. [v]

“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Ann Landers

Several quotes spring to mind as I think of these numbers. Bob Dylan in his megahit, “Lay, Lady, Lay” wrote this refrain: “Lay, lady, lay; lay across my big brass bed.” It echoes the beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti[vi] from the fifties: “Let’s lie down somewheres, baby.” Compare and contrast with Shakespeare’s oft quoted Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Who among us does not enjoy the sights and signs of children, signs of hope, wonder and life? Does a decline in those willing to bear children, raise children, lay down their lives for children and their spouses signify effervescing hope, wonder and life?  A final question for our consideration comes from a talk we heard from Dr. Janet Smith about twenty-five years ago. In it she spoke of marriage and families. She asked if some of the rewritten vows that were popular at the time were troubling.

Like the difference between “Lay, lady, lay” and “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” is there a difference between, “we’ll hang out and support one another as long as we are mutually fulfilled and feel content in each other’s company,” and “in sickness and health, rich or poor, good times or bad until death do us part.” Dr. Smith taught (paraphrased in my memory), that traditional vows promised openness to life and a forever commitment. They promised the difference between “lets lie down somewheres, baby” and “I want to get to know you ever more deeply, trust you more deeply, respect you more deeply, love you for your sake, not mine, grow old together with you and share all things and paths with you, come what may. I want our beautiful love when expressed in our physical intimacy empowered to co-create with God’s help another eternal human being who looks a lot like you, then love and raise that unique tiny person into maturity together.” What have we gained by mistaking license for freedom? What have we lost?

“A dog is a pitiful thing, depending wholly on companionship, and utterly lost except in packs or by the side of his master. Leave him alone, and he does not know what to do except bark and howl and trot about till sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep.” H.P. Lovecraft

[i] Insurance Information Institute – Pet statistics

[ii] U.S. Census Bureau statistics on U.S. Population by Age Group

[iii] P.D. James, celebrated author of the Adam Dalgleish mystery series wrote a terrifying dystopian novel about a future society with an infertility crisis. Children of Men was made into a well-received Clive Owen’s movie in 1992. In it desperate mothers in hope wheeled dogs around in baby carriages. I’ve seen a few of those around here.

[iv] “Fertility Rate Varies Widely Across U.S”, Brianna Abbott, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2019

[v] Pew Research Group – “Fewer than half of U.S. Kids Today live in Traditional Families

[vi] Ferlinghetti was lesser known that his fellow “beat” writers like Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac, but in my youth was widely read. I still must have his “Coney Island of the Mind” somewhere in mislaid box of books.

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American Elm

“The elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about…” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently we were walking in the historic section of Newport. In front of the Judicial Center near the Old State House or Old Colony House[i] on the east end of Washington Square we chanced upon a mature eighty-foot American Elm. Once common along so many New England town commons and main thoroughfares, they are now a rarity, especially one as large and old: a true wonder and gift to behold. The spread of the nearly vertical clean main leaders and branches draws the eye upward like few other species do. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, they lift the heart and spirit.

When I was first learning tree pruning crafts, elms were among the more challenging for neophyte nervous climbers. High unprotected foot-locking while gripping together two strands of climbing line to reach the lowest branches followed by some long, shin chafing, sweaty palmed scurrying up steep, sometimes slippery leaders made getting into one of these tall beauties uniquely difficult. But once tied into the sinewy, supple limbs in a secure upper central crotch, then balancing to reach outer limbs and swinging from limb to limb were exhilarating, unencumbered and fun.

The scourge of Dutch Elm Disease in the sixties and seventies all but wiped them out. American elms form natural root grafts, so once one magnificent individual was infected, the fungus could infect the arteries (xylem in this case) of every elm with overlapping root systems and lay waste to a whole street. Unlike many other species, elm trees are particularly vulnerable because they transport their water and nutrients only in one outermost annual ring. Once those fragile single layer vessels are clogged with fungi, the elm was usually doomed. As I matured in my tree climbing experience, so did the disease spread, and I spent many more days taking down and destroying these beautiful dead creatures than pruning live ones. A chainsaw is a poor instrument for fine pruning.  The elm bark beetle overwinters in dead elm trees under the bark and fungus spores are spread stuck to their bodies when the hatched mature beetles fly to bore into healthy trees in the spring to lay their eggs. A perfect symbiosis: the fungus needs live xylem; the beetle needs dead bark to protect its burrows and nests over the winter. The shared unlucky host is the dying elm tree. Cleaning up and getting rid of dead elm wood is one of the more effective preventatives in the losing battle against the disease, so we muscled them to the ground. To spot the yellow telltale flagging of wilting leaves on a tiny limb was a portent, dispiriting, like the long, meaningful, silent gaze of an oncologist when the biopsy results come back, preparing to deliver the bad news.

Segue: The English word “truth” derives from the Old English “triewth or treowth” meaning trustworthiness, constancy or faithfulness. Ultimately it is believed to have descended from the ancient Indo-European word for wood or tree, “the semantic link being the firmness or steadfastness of oaks and such trees.”[ii] As the elm tree is perfect, true, consistent and faithful to its purpose, so, too is objective truth. As the elm tree dies of its own vulnerability and a tiny spore, so too in post modern times does the concept and common value of “treowth.” Truth has devolved to whatever is necessary to achieve the ends of the definers.

“In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” one turns to “long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The George Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reportage (New York: Harcourt, 1984) originally published in 1948, 363

In 1948 to brilliant minds like Orwell’s, the future degradation of language was clear. No longer do news media, politicians or bureaucrats write the truth or even the facts as they understand them. Language is persuasive; symbolic acts are persuasive; film, music, political discourse, fiction and non-fiction are persuasive and always in service of the chosen narrative, the agenda. Whatsoever advances persuading others to strengthen the agenda is right. Right, objective right, what we ought to do to be true to the facts is secondary even accidental. Such adherence to fairness and objectivity is considered foolish, or worse, a betrayal. It does not even matter really if we convince others to change their minds, but we must stay safely in our concurring herd. To suffer rejection and mockery because we speak in criticism of the current accepted normality, no matter how abnormal, is our deepest fear. We speak and write and post bullet point posters to gain “Likes” from the likeminded.

The Kavanaugh circus is the latest episode. Someone’s lying, and it doesn’t matter so long as the agenda is promoted. That Senator Feinstein and her gang of bushwhackers held on to the letter from Dr. Ford with the uncorroborated accusations of sexual assault for over six weeks was part of the ambush. Grossly unfair to Justice Kavanaugh with the eleventh-hour sandbag job, and grossly unfair to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, while it riled up the likeminded in the media, filling all with self-righteous indignation, the surprise attack time frame left few prospects for proper investigation and vetting. Dr. Ford was left naked in the public square by her allies and the circling hyenas surrounding Kavanaugh, who were only interested in embarrassing the judge, undermining fair due process and stopping the nomination at any cost. Including awful cost to Dr. Ford: whether she is believed or not, her life is irretrievably changed. The truth, the true facts had nothing to do with the cauldron or the agenda.

 Then we had the box of coat hangers delivered to Senator Susan Collin’s office. So many lies in that box, it’s hard to sort them out, but the nearly unbearable pressure was clear. Vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh and soon will follow thousands of butchered and maimed women abandoned on bloody kitchen tables. That Kavanaugh would be one vote of an impossible to predict nine was not a consideration. Forty-five year’s weight of stare decisis since Roe v Wade was not a consideration. Should the extremely remote possibility of a reversal or a curtailment of the most liberal abortion ruling in the world occur, the law would revert for the states to establish in their various jurisdictions, and the great majority of the states allow abortion in almost all circumstances. Voters could vote. None of the facts mattered, only the emotional bludgeon.

Senator Collins stood strong against it all. A pro-choice Republican with the full onslaught of the abortion lobby storming her office, she stood strong. And she will be forever vilified for it, attacked politically in every way because she held that the facts did not support rejecting the nomination of a man with a thirty plus year history of brilliant jurisprudence and the support of every woman that he had mentored and advanced during his long career. Here is what she said: “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”

Fair minded? Principled? Thoughtful? What we say we want in our leaders, but rarely support in practice? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Senator Collins supported both liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. She voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act. She voted for the largest government stimulus in our history submitted by President Obama. But when she held to principles, fairness and thoughtfulness with Judge Kavanaugh, that is the unforgiveable sin to the pack that wants to run her down and tear her to pieces. Such is the fate of treowth tellers.

“And this is why the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said that the truth will not only set you free, it will make you odd.” Charles J. Chaput (New York, Henry Holt, 2017, 110)

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Colony_House

[ii] John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade, 2011), 543

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