Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Season's Done

O What can ail thee Knight at arms
     So haggard and so woe begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full
     And the harvest’s done.
          [Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

No! — Turkey!

Let there be turkey and pumpkin and
Stuffing made of old bread to soak up the fat
That isn’t supposedly there says the
Sniffing gourmet speaking on radio
And counsels that we eat instead
L’oie, ze goose, or un poulet grand,
ze chicken—but no! Let’s have the
Turkey, the stuffing, the works,
In all of the usual ways. The Pilgrims were
Glad they had the big bird and it’s their day
We celebrate, not the gourmet’s.
It isn’t the eating we’re celebrating
It is the Mercy of Providence.

[Belatedly—because it takes time to cross the Atlantic—I have been able to add the perfect “Ghulf” picture to this poem. It is the photo of a Thanksgiving meal prepared and eaten on this feast day but in Paris, where our son-in-law Thierry (aka The Chef) tells us that butchers have got the message finally and always stock turkeys ahead of the American feast.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The November Day for Us

Many a year we celebrate Thanksgiving early—and yes, the first time too. It all started a while back now, on the 23rd of November one year, when Brigitte went into labor, and she labored all night to give new life a start! On the 24th was born—Michelle Denise! Happy Birthday, dear, and may your full day at work today—helping other mothers give birth—and culminating in a kind of festival—end on a shivery, dramatic, and exciting note tonight when, surrounded by your children, you’ll be watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I. Our wishes and thoughts will be flying about in the darkness of the theater above you, unseen but, we hope, not unfelt. Many happy returns.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Get Out...

Get out and walk the icy air
And don’t just talk of… in a bit….
Lift up your head, the spine, you know,
Stare down the thick, the wirr-warr of
Thick branches now that they have lost
Their leaves. The light is bronzen,
The afternoon fades. Lord, this wind bites!
And fall’s habits made you neglect
To grope for the gloves of yesteryear
Back there, somewhere, shelved forever,
Or it seems, high up at the back
Of the front hall’s closet where old
Baseball caps build a totem pole.

Silent in Siloam

In The White Goddess Robert Graves claims that poets have the power to know the future and also the power to recover the past, and in his poem, “The Fallen Tower of Siloam,” he speak obliquely of this power and rejects its use in practical affairs. Now, first, this tower. Jesus mentions it in a passage of Luke (13:2-4). Some people had approached him and related the execution of some insurgents by Pilate. They were trying to get his reaction. He said:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No: but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?”
The fall of that tower appears to have been a fairly recent current event Jesus expected his audience to know about. Graves used this event to make quite another but, in an odd way, quite analogous point. Herewith the poem:

The Fallen Tower of Siloam

Should the building totter, run for an archway!
We were there already—already the collapse
Powdered the air with chalk, and shrieking
Of old men crushed under the fallen beams
Dwindled to comic yelps. How not terrible
When the event outran the alarm
And suddenly we were free—

Free to forget how grim it stood,
That tower, and what great fissures ran
Up the west wall, how rotten the under-pinning
At the south-eastern angle. Satire
Had whirled a gentle wind around it,
As if to buttress the worn masonry;
Yet we, waiting, had abstained from satire.

It behoved us, indeed, as poets
To be silent in Siloam, to foretell
No visible calamity. Though kings
Were crowned and gold coin minted still and horses
Still munched at nose-bags in the public streets,
All such sad emblems were to be condoned:
An old-wives’ tale, not ours.

A difficult poem with a hard message. It seems to me addressed to poets, not the public. “We were already there,” the poet says. The poet sees the future. For him the tower crumbled to powder before it did; the disaster already surrounded him before it came; he had no need for an architectural committee to asses the visible fissures, the failing foundation—or to mind the glib chatter that took a not-so-serious and therefore satirical note of these signs. Yes. It behooves the poet to be silent in Siloam—except to those who, like him, can smell the air as well. The rest, of course, are preoccupied with those seeking and gaining power, with banks printing money, and the media rechewing the endless cud. The poet is called to the worship of his Muse; it is a higher calling. Silent in Siloam. Hard words… But so are Jesus’ words, addressed to his listeners, suggesting that they repent—or else. What a hoary, almost offensive word that, repentance, in this day and age. And that rapid shift in meaning, there, in that passage, between two kinds of peril: difficult. Difficult like poetry.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Coal Illuminates Collectives

A news story in the New York Times this morning brings the latest about black gold. China has become a major importer. The price of coal has doubled in the last five years. And producers all over the world, not least in countries where coal consumption is under major environmental pressure, are vying to take part in this latest coal rush. Meanwhile our domestic airwaves are filled with pious talk about carbon footprints and the like. A telling statistic is this: U.S. exports of coal to China stood at 2,714 tons in 2009; in the first six months of 2010 we’ve already shipped 2.9 million tons. Now, of course, it doesn’t matter where that coal is actually burned—not in the context of global warming or ocean-acidification. Let him who wants to chastise China first look to his own exports, etc.

The behavior of all the parties, wherever they are, is easily understood, indeed quite logical. The point that I’ve been making, talking to myself, is that collectives are quite incapable of acting with the kind of consciousness and will we associate with individuals at their best. Many years ago, a colleague of mine at Midwest Research Institute, as part of some study of energy, made the fascinating discovery that China had once been as thickly, you might say impenetrably, forested once as Russia still is in part. Over the millennia, China became deforested. And not just China, you might say. As a collective, humanity devours natural resources in an entirely unthinking way. Never mind our extremely sophisticated predictive computer models.

But note. I’m not pointing fingers or advocating any program. I’m simply observing. It saves time. No point in listening to global warming seminars on television. We’ll consume the last molecule of sugar on that slice of glass and multiply like mad as we do it, just like bacteria in an experiment. And when it’s all consumed, the vast majority of us will go to the Big Petri Dish in the Sky. I note this because it teaches me something about the meaning of Reality, yes, that one, the one with the capital R.

I have the image from here. The source provides no source for, or the name of the creator of, this cartoon.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Panthéon or La Pauvre St. Geneviève

Herewith a fascinating quote about a landmark in Paris:

The construction of the new classical church of St Geneviève in Paris was vowed by Louis XV if he recovered from his illness. He recovered and then found the money by the use of state lotteries. Soufflot the architect lived in the full glare of the Enlightenment, and needed nothing Gothic or mysterious. He was a man of his century and wanted daylight and rationality, and paid small regard either to the history of France or to the customs of Catholic worship. The legend of St Geneviève was not important to him. But the plans ran into difficulty. The construction met trouble with foundations and was not complete when the Revolution broke out. The church was not yet consecrated when the National Assembly on 4 April 1791 decided that it be called Panthéon and dedicated to those who deserved well of their country; Mirabeau the first. Voltaire’s remains were translated thither by a theoretically solemn but actually carnival-like procession on 10 July of the same year; Rousseau’s remains on 11 October 1794. The architect de Quincy was ordered to obliterate religious ornaments from the church. He removed the furniture and the bell-tower, and replaced the glittering cross and adoring angels over the portico with a France bestowing a crown of virtue, while Liberty with lions crushed despotism; and an inscription, ‘To our great men the Fatherland does homage.’ He removed the cross on the dome (it was only a temporary cross until they carved a statue of St Geneviève) and put a huge statue of the goddess Fame, nine meters high, blowing an enormous trumpet.

In 1806 Napoleon, who thought established churches were like vaccination to protect the people from sorcery and fanaticism, re-established Catholic worship and the name of St Geneviève and added (1812) a golden cross upon the dome. But the church was not reopened until 1822. The portico had its third sculpture, a shining cross with rays, and lost the inscription ‘To our great men…’.

In 1830, another revolution. St Geneviève was out again, so were altar and candlesticks and confessional-boxes. The portico got its fourth decoration, the Fatherland distributing crowns offered to it by Liberty while History stands by recording—crowns to soldiers on the right, and on the left to civilians, including Voltaire and Rousseau, but also including Archbishop Fénelon. The inscription ‘To our great men…’ came back, and the cross on the dome was replaced by a flag.

In 1851-2 Louis Napoleon transformed the Panthéon into the Church of St Geneviève, gave it national status, removed the inscription ‘To our great men…’ and put a cross (only a wooden cross) on the dome.

During the Commune of 1871 Communards sawed off the arms of the wooden cross and hung a red flag from the upright pole.

In July 1873 the cross returned—this time a heavy stone cross four meters high.

Victor Hugo died on 22 May 1885. St Geneviève went out again, and Victor Hugo was buried in the revived Panthéon, and all the altars and confessional-boxes disappeared; but on the dome the cross was left, and stands there to this day. It is a great monument of French classical art, killed icy and naked by the troubles of French history.
The quote comes from The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, by Owen Chadwick, p. 158-159. I found this book thanks to a post on Siris. Adding any comment to this tour de force would be a sacrilege. The image is from Wikipedia Commons here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Conference Tree

A while back, here, in a post on flocks of birds, I mentioned the tree on which they gather. It’s visible from our back yard. The tree died two or three years ago. It is bare all through the spring and summer. Until the city finally gets around to having it removed, the only life it ever sees is in the fall when swarms of birds turn its branches into a living multitude. They swarm, they settle, they take off again. Why do they do it? Is fall the season when, to echo Chaucer, they “longen … to goon on pilgrimages”? A week or so ago, trying to snap some photos of the last moments of a sunset, I glimpsed a relatively young moon in the sky and took its picture too. In that image, we later noticed, I’d also captured an image of the Conference Tree. With the moon at the center of an imaginary clock face, the Conference Tree is at five o’clock.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mountain Pose

Among the scores of yoga poses the clumsy beginner encounters, the first one I think I’ve finally begun to master is called Tadasana, the Mountain Pose. It simply means to stand up straight—and I’ve gradually come to understand that I rarely ever do that—but I did it reasonably well at age six already, without much trara. Brigitte laughs and calls me Mountain Man now. "How tall you are," she says, shaking her head in amazement... I got to thinking about that. After three-score and ten, the simplest of things are initially difficult and, oddly, leave a very strange feeling behind. Worthy applying, this experience, in other spheres of life as well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Linnaeus was a Flatterer

We owe the biological classification of humans to the same man who named just about all other species too, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish botanist. We’re classified as Homo sapiens, “wise man.” Linnaeus’ assignment of wisdom as the defining characteristic of the human was, I would note, not his first instinct. His first name for Man was Homo diurnus, “man of the day” or “the man of today.” That works, minimally. Obviously it didn't please Linneaus. It failed to identify any particularly unique characteristic of the human beyond asserting that, to know us, we need but look around. Today. Therefore he went on to make us wise. Now it strikes me that Linnaeus was a flatterer. Clever, yes, but more than just a quip. It goes beyond that. It strikes me that Linnaeus made a mistake; he wasn't precise enough. I'll try to show why.

Almost the first thing that sapience teaches (once it has been, to some degree, achieved) is that humanity, viewed from a distance, anyway, appears to be be mad, asleep, confused, at war, cruel, negligent, unjust, egotistical, short-sighted, careless, and blind. On average and in general, it seems that such traits, which we don't share with any animal species, are muted or mitigated only by the experience of hardship. Hardship produces some useful habits here and there.

A story in today’s paper of an event in China: A drunk young man ran down another young man and a girl. The girl later died of her injuries. When the drunk driver was apprehended, he warned the security guards who’d grabbed him, saying: “My father is Li Gang.” His father was the deputy police chief in a district of his city. This sort of story is the point here. That's what humanity seem to be like when it is left to develop any-which-way.

An illuminating insight into this matter comes to mind. It is Mortimer Adler’s view of human nature. Adler is the famed editor of The Great Books of the Western World. His view appear in various places, including Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Elsewhere, in an interview, Adler argued that:

The denial of human nature rests ultimately on the striking contrast between the dominant behavioral similitude that prevails among the other animal species and the dominant behavioral differentiation that prevails among the subgroups of the human species. Looked at one way, the denial of human nature is correct. The members of the human species do not have a specific or common nature in the same sense that the members of other animal species do. This, by the way, is one of the most remarkable differences between man and other animals, one that tends to corroborate the conclusion that man differs from other animals in kind, not in degree.
The unique core of humanity, Adler asserted, was potentiality. Man appears with a great many potentialities which its members may (and I would emphasize also may not) actually develop. I agree. In my mind the central fact of being human is that we are incomplete and undeveloped—unfinished, potentially something and, failing that, much worse than animals. Linnaeus erred because he designated humanity with a characteristic that, God willing and the crick don’t rise, we might actually develop. But we are, in truth, Homo potentialis at best.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

As Through a Cosmos Darkly

It’s almost time to launch another ship.
Outward bound on yet another trip.
It is a noble, an expensive venture.
We want to see, to test if, peradventure,
A very complex modern instrument
Can finally detect an element.

We know that it exist out there in Space.
We cannot see it but detect its trace
In gravitational anomalies.
Galactic orbital trajectories
Suggest more mass out there than we can see.
That something’s there on that we all agree.
We have devised a name for it, Dark Matter.
The meaning is that galaxies are fatter.
They weigh more although they look quite slender,
Never mind their shape, their size, or gender.

Fritz Zwicky was he who first got to see
This troubling mystery in ’33.
In a galactic cluster named Coma
On its edges, around its corona,
Galaxies orbited much, much too fast.
Sky-gazers since have felt, have been, harassed
By this aptly named problem of missing mass.
Tracking the orbits or staring through glass,
They failed to fathom why something out there
Refused their sensors and even their prayer.

Dark matter thus turned into a brave sort of punt,
A clever proposal, a never-done stunt.
Physics boasts many such daring forays,
Many such elegant mental ballets.
Red shifts that signal endless expansion,
Black holes that cap galactic contraction,
A Bang that spewed cosmos from a mere dot…
Was that—or not?—the original Fiat?

Sail on brave ship into the cosmic black.
Beware Dark Matter of our brave attack!
We are determined to see, to sense starkly—
Even if only through a glass darkly.

[Suggested by a story in today’s New York Times titled “A Costly Quest for the Dark Heart of the Cosmos.”]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


But we believe that the use of intelligence-driven, precision, targeted operations against high-value insurgents and their networks is a key component of our comprehensive civilian-military operations.
     [Hillary Clinton in defense of General Petraeus]
Can sophisticated phrasing hide a grimmer sort of truth? Is it possible that in many cases “intelligence-driven” sometimes only means that Afghanistanis are using the U.S. military to do away with their enemies? That those enemies may not be insurgents at all? It is extraordinarily difficult, I would submit, to operate in theaters where our own people don’t themselves speak Pashtu, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, or, for that matter any other language that people of the Islamic realm actually speak. Further, we have far too few people who’ve themselves spent long enough actually living the kind of life that enables them to “read” the population as we can read our own. The more sophisticated the language about a conflict, the less we should trust it. Such language hides the truth.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Attitudes to Iron

One of our most persistent tendencies as humans is to produce the mirage of the Golden Age. We project this age both backward and forward in time. It is a poetic creation (of course). In the Greek-Roman the poet Hesiod (didn’t those fellows have a first name?) produced the metallic classification—Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. In all of the variants of it, surprise!, we always live the Iron Age, whenever we happen to live. Paradise is the golden age of the Hebraic tradition, but because it appears in the Bible, the Garden does not usually appear in a recital of ages.

A comment here about the Heroic age—clearly not a metal. It was Hesiod’s way to refer to a period like our Second World War, thus when great heroes fill the earth—the Greatest Generation, etc. In Hesiod’s case, the reference is to the twelfth century BC, the time of the Trojan War. There are wars, you see, dime a dozen, and then there are Wars!

Golden ages that we find looking back we also discern ahead in time. But those who see the gleam of gold ahead are still writing in the Age of Iron. That age we know only too well. Virgil, positioned at the transit between the Roman Republic and Roman Empire—well, actually, in the early Empire, foresaw a future golden age in these lines (Eclogue IV, 5-8):

The age Cumaean Sybil sang has passed.
New centuries begin to roll at last.
Virgo now reigns, Saturn resumes the throne,
The Iron Age is past and gone,
A golden race arises from the rust.
Heaven has sent a new breed down to us.

Yes, I’ve tackled Virgil too, but not the Latin—just “fixing” translations into English.

Indeed one’s tempted to judge a culture by the poetic images by means of which it captures the looking back and looking forward. The glory of the Second Coming contrasts sharply with the Marxist future in which a Classless Society dawns as the State Withers Away.

The certainty that all ages are made of iron recurs to me every time I look closely into a period as yet unfamiliar to me—particularly when that time is described by a contemporary. In the high Middle Age Dante looked back to Virgil’s time in awe—and ahead to the effective restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. His own time was corruption squared, of course. He transcended this feeling by writing poetry about an idealized Beatrice in the heights of Heaven.

A transcendental attitude toward the grind of the Age of Iron is relatively rare—and a transcendental but practical approach does not attract the masses either. That attitude is encased in the saying: “Be in the world but not of it.” The maxim is very well known and has an unambiguously religious flavor. For this reason lots of people think that it is somewhere in the Bible. Google shows many people trying to find it there.

The curious fact is that this saying comes from the Sufis—and isn’t in the Qur’an either. Its original is Persian: Dar Dunya Básh: Az Dunya Mabásh. Be in the world but not of the world. It’s a rhyming maxim, thus mnemonic. Not that it takes a rhyme to remember it.

The more ordinary attitudes to life in this valley are resentment, aggression, combat—or withdrawal, indifference, resignation. Being in the world, to the contrary, strongly suggests sincere, energetic, and active participation—including service and effort—but with the heart detached. By “world,” of course, neither the Sufis nor the public nor I really mean the wonders of nature or the starry skies.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fog Envelops

Fog envelops house and yard
This morning in November,
Its center hard, impossible
To find. But its sound, as it were,
Is bound our way from an easterly
Direction where lake-plowing barges
Carry their charges of cement or
Coal or oil and in deep voices mourn
Their own dimmed hulking visibility.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Collectives—and Virtue

In a comment yesterday Brandon (Siris) enclosed a link to a paper by Alasdair MacIntyre titled The Nature of Virtues, saying that he found parallels in McIntire’s paper to my posts on collectives. That paper is a long and learned (if also fascinating) disquisition on virtue. The parallels appear on the last of nine dense pages—and are indeed illuminating.

Some context before I present some quotes. MacIntyre develops his theory of virtues by pointing out that virtuous actions or practices are associated with what he calls external as well as internal goods. External goods are the rewards associated with virtuous actions—thus money, fame, influence, and so on. Internal goods are joys, pleasures, and satisfactions that arise from the virtuous acts themselves—and would be present even if no external rewards flowed from them. My own favorite example is the joy that comes simply from doing a job right. In the concluding paragraphs of his paper, MacIntyre applies these concepts to collective activities—and reaches the same conclusions I do. I spoke of inefficiency and higher costs as concomitants of genuinely human (read virtuous) behavior. The emphasis is mine. Here are the quotes:

The virtues are of course themselves in turn fostered by certain types of social institutions and endangered by others. Thomas Jefferson thought that only in a society of small farmers could the virtues flourish; and Adam Ferguson with a good deal more sophistication saw the institutions of modern commercial society as endangering at least some traditional virtues. It is Ferguson’s type of sociology which is the empirical counter part of the conceptual account of the virtues which I have given, a sociology which aspires to lay bare the empirical, causal connection between virtues, practices and institutions. For this kind of conceptual account has strong empirical implications; it provides an explanatory scheme which can be tested in particular cases. Moreover my thesis has empirical content in another way; it does entail that without the virtues there could be a recognition only of what I have called external goods and not at all of internal goods in the context of practices. And in any society which recognized only external goods competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature. We have a brilliant portrait of such a society in Hobbes’s account of the state of nature ….

Virtues then stand in a different relationship to external and to internal goods. The possession of the virtues—and not only of their semblance and simulacra—are necessary to achieve the latter; yet the possession of the virtues may perfectly well hinder us in achieving external goods. I need to emphasize at this point that external goods genuinely are goods. Not only are they characteristic objects of human desire, whose allocation is what gives point to the virtues of justice and of geometry, but no one can despise them altogether without a certain hypocrisy. Yet notoriously the cultivation of truthfulness, justice and courage will often, the world being what it … is, bar us from being rich or famous or powerful. Thus although we may hope that we can not only achieve the standards of excellence and the internal goods of certain practices by possessing the virtues and become rich, famous and powerful, the virtues are always a potential stumbling block to this comfortable ambition. We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.
The link to the paper itself is here.

The Baha'is

Today is the birthday of Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri (1817-1892) but known to the world as Baha'u'llah (“Glory of God”), the founder of the Baha'i faith. Baha'u'llah saw the light in Tehran, in Persia. I thought I’d mark the day in memory of an old friend of mine, Bill Munson, who was both an ordinary American and a Baha'i. Bill passed away while still a young man thirty-some odd years ago. Because of our friendship, I got to know the Baha'i faith quite well, read some of its sacred books, and even attended some Baha'i events with him. That experience also served as my gateway to the much wider Islamic culture.

The Baha'i faith is by any measure the most liberal of any “descendants” of Islam but presents itself to the world as a new revelation—the most recent in a succession sent from God to guide humanity. This faith also has its pre-cursor figure, analogous to John the Baptist in Christianity, at least as the Baha'is believe. That man, from Shiraz in Persia, named at birth Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad (1819-1850), called himself the Bab, or “The Gate” in 1844. He was of the most populous branch of Shi'ite Islam, the Twelvers, who in those days—and still to this day—are awaiting the appearance of the Twelfth Imam. It seemed that the Bab laid claim to be the gate to the Twelfth Imam, preparing the way, as it were, but some discerned from his later writings that he claimed himself to be the hidden imam, now in the flesh. Baha'u'llah was one of his early disciples. In 1863, exiled to Baghdad, Baha'u'llah proclaimed his own revelation and mission, and said that he was the one whom the Bab had announced. Baha'u'llah did not claim to be the Twelfth Imam in the Shi'ite context but, instead, claimed to bring a new revelation, indeed a new religion, the central message of which was the unity of mankind under God.

The chief teachings are abandonment of all prejudice, full equality of women, the oneness of all religion, the elimination of extremes in all poverty and wealth, universal education, independent search for truth, a global commonwealth of nations, and a fundamental harmony between religion and science.

The Baha'is are democratically governed by groups of nine, its highest level being the Universal House of Justice located in Haifa, Israel. Not quite living up to the full equality claim, women are excluded from the top nine but may serve at lower levels like national assemblies and below. Alas. An inside-the-community explanation of this anomaly may be read here. The nine-pointed star is the Baha'i symbol.

The faith has around 5 million adherents in 236 countries. It is persecuted in the Islamic realm. Iran considers Baha'is a political movement and denies the Baha'i faith the status of a religion, even of a minority religion. The biggest center of the religion here is located in Wilmette, IL just north of Chicago.

I found it fascinating to encounter a genuine but a very young religion in my own time, the 1960s, thus about  a hundred years after it began. Back in those days I read a book I'm fairly sure was titled The Competitors of Christianity—although I can't find a reference to it on the web. And no, I don’t mean Christianity and its Competitors, a recent work. Every religion always insists that it’s the last—but all religions are also institutions, and these age, change, and decay. And others sprout. I wonder what our time will look like from the year 4000...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Responsibility v. Mechanics

The soul-less behavior of large institutions seems (to me) due to a combination of fear, rigid rules, harsh sanctions, and employees who lack discretion or think that they do. This institutional behavior also owes a great deal to an almost silly modern faith in “training.” Now people will say that sheer size necessitates the use of policies and disciplines. And that the modern legal system gives people the right to sue deep pockets—and hence employees must be constrained so that the institutions can defend themselves in court. There is also present here an implied but never stated belief that society does not produce a large enough supply of genuinely intelligent and responsible people who can be trusted to exercise their own discretion when working for large, rich organizations. Decisions therefore must be channeled to those with the right qualifications.

I see this as the substitution of mechanics for meaning. In agriculture we have soul-less monoculture—overwhelming nature with machines and chemicals to produce a single crop sure to sell in vast quantities. In manufacturing there’s the assembly line—you might call it mono-movement: you will secure these three nuts with an electric drill…for the rest of your miserable life. In institutions we have bureaucracy where even the simplest questions, complaints, or adjustments must be referred “up the line”—for God’s sake do not make decisions on the front line where institution meets its client.

It’s riskier but much more effective, in the long run, to delegate the power to the level where it must be present. This has long been known and preached under the code-word of “empowerment.” But use of that very term reveals the problem. No. People already have the power to make sensible decisions at every level of a complex organization. The power is built in, comes with the employee. We speak of empowerment as if the employee didn’t have it. If the employee doesn’t have it, it is because it has been taken away—by the system. To be sure empowerment is there as a subject in countless “off-sites” and the seminars—but not for actual implementation.

We live surrounded by collectives rather than communities because our leadership, those who control wealth or power, hold on to it and insist on using people as soul-less gadgets rather than employing them as responsible individuals. We don’t walk the talk we talk in our endless training sessions. If we could genuinely humanize the large collectives, all sorts of new demands would arise in society. Our elites would then begin sincerely to insist that we have schools that really work, that all families are “empowered” to raise competent children, etc. Instead we apply the same policy mechanics at every level—and some few lonely voices out in the wilderness, like mine, cry out against and curse the “collectives.”

The way to humanize institutions (or agriculture, or manufacturing, etc.), is always to favor  the rational and human side of a situation—even when it is inefficient. Organic, diversified agriculture is—inefficient; but it is adaptive. Enabling employees is—inefficient; but ultimately it will make the organization responsive and more secure. Inefficiency means more costly. This translates into those who control the wealth letting go of some of it willingly to secure an adaptive, moral, and higher order.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Grosse Pointe, MI Collective

Little house...

Big house...

Public Views of...Collectives

Gallup tracks what it labels as “confidence in institutions,” and a recent poll (July 2010) shows public ratings of some seventeen (here). I suggest you take a moment to study the table that Gallup shows. In a complicated sort of way, the data show us how we view and judge collectives—reflecting multiple aspects of our relationships to them.

It’s fascinating that in a democracy the top-ranked institution is the military, the Man on Horseback, that most ancient symbol of force and therefore of authority. The military is the big collective shield. It’s also very distant from most people and never mentioned except with bows of awe and words of praise by our politicians. People evidently ignore the cost of this institution. In a time when taxes are labeled evil, very few rail at the billions spent on military might—indeed the taxes that support this sector are untouchable. Distance, uninvolvement, and basic security—and never mind what it costs.

Small business in second place surprised me just a little—but it makes sense. Small business is all around us—but being small it is the most personal of all collectives. We might as well be dealing with other individuals. Small business also lacks all power and does not awe us in the least. It is responsive and ubiquitous. Familiar, useful, personal.

Police has a high rank because it is the military—at the local level. The vast majority see the police but don’t feel its weight—and when it touches us, we’ve usually been speeding. When a child’s lost, it is the police we call—and when the squad car comes and brings back Malcolm (in our case), we overflow with gratitude.

Only 48 percent of the polled view religious institutions with high confidence—enough, however, to give this collective the fourth rank. The trend in this country is unbelief (as I’ve pointed out here), hence less than half is pretty good. In one sense religion is another protective institution—against the dread of the unknown. We participate in religious institutions entirely voluntarily—and they lack all power to compel. Those who engage in collective worship do so because they approve of what they do.

The fifth-ranking collective is the medical (with HMOs excepted). People rank five collectives higher than any political grouping! Interesting. Tells us something about the rank of politics in public perception (as over against the media’s perception). Were it not for the financial and bureaucratic aspects of this sector, I think it would end up much higher than it does. Its relatively low marks must be due, first, to the financial hassles it imposes and, second, to the mechanization that has come to surround it. Tests, tests, and tests. Ever more we’re dealing with machines and with technician, ever less with that most trusted of all professionals, the doctor. HMOs, sixteenth of seventeen, get their low rating because they are much more intrusive and seen to impose a kind of rationing of health care.

Gallup lists the Supreme Court above the Presidency here although both have 36 percent approval. As this other post by Gallup shows, however, in the period 1974-2009, the Court was always ranked higher than the executive branch. That, too, is an interesting indicator. In government we approve of an appointed level, and one limited to the interpretation of a single document, much more than the elected levels. Supreme Court justices have formal qualifications. The other branches are qualified only by mass opinion which shifts now to us and now to those other people we wish would simply stay at home.

This is getting long, so I will wrap this up by commenting on Big Business. Small business is on top, big business at the bottom. The products of big business don’t differ from products sold by the small. The difference in ranking arises, it seems, because big business is impersonal, unapproachable, and powerful. It is the proud tower in the town from which death looks gigantically down (ht Edgar Allan Poe). Its employees often behave just like we do. They raise their hands and look up into the air by way of saying—“It’s beyond me. It’s the system.” But it’s a human system. Somehow, therefore, we expect it to behave…more human. It is a sign of how badly frayed public consensus has become that in July of 2010 Congress has managed to be ranked even lower than big business.

Summation. Now it strikes me that the general public has no more direct contact with the Supreme Court, the Presidency, the Congress, or the judiciary system than it has with the military or the police. But its opinions of the other sectors are based on experience. For me this highlights the power of the media. What opinion echoes back in polls is only the public’s experience of news reports and pundits’ opinions—which is not the same as forming an opinion from, say, visits to doctors offices, clinics, and hospitals.

When institutions are distant, generally beneficial, and don’t intrude into daily life, opinions will be favorable. Low opinions will be based on intrusion and compulsion—mitigated by the benefit received. Thus the opinion of the medical system is middling. But for the overwhelmingly vast majority the federal government is not a tangible reality. As the Chinese saying has it, Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away. I double-underline this. The federal government is not felt—except on April 15. The majority’s opinion must therefore derive from some kind of reporting.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Zareba Round My Grimoire

Rare the experience at my age of encountering a word in reading I haven't ever seen before—and in addition find difficult to understand from the context. The word I came across and instantly marked was zareba. It was being used in a philosophical work which said that idealism was the zareba that limited certain philosophers. In another book I encountered a word I did recognize at once, but I certainly hadn't seen for a month of years. It was grimoire.

Zareba comes from Africa and means “an improvised stockade constructed especially of thorn bushes in defense (against wild animals, enemy attacks) in parts of Africa.” Grimoire comes from French, is a corruption of the word grammar, and means “a magician's manual for invoking demons and spirits of the dead.” Thank you Webster's (unabridged).

Monday, November 8, 2010

More Notes on Collectives: Command

Having broached the subject of collectives—and thrown out the notion that they more resemble primitive entities than conscious beings—I thought I that would add notes on the subject as they occur to me. Here is one.

Collectives—complained about from without—can also be viewed from within. We’ve all lived and worked inside them and have our opinions about the ones we know. My premise today? Those who think that collectives behave more or less like conscious individuals have never been in charge of one. Once you’ve experienced command, as it were, you know better. People who’ve held management jobs know this only too well—and they also know that the larger the group becomes the more it assumes a life of its own that no single person can—indeed should even aspire to—control. The effect of increasing size produces an organization—organs, in other words, thus division of labor. Lines of communication, in both directions, grow longer and more complicated. The more often a message passes from one person to the next, the more it tends to change. This change is only natural. Each recipient will adapt it in good faith to his or her immediate context—and will pass it on with some of that change sticking to the message. At every level measurements of performance tend to be present—implicit, explicit, indeed also those that the people measured don’t even know are being applied. The presence of these measurements influence the information that passes up and back; people will minimize bad news and try to “look good”; this deforms the information as it moves. You might say that coherence is lost in this process—or say that the coherence is “adapted” to the nature of the organism and, ultimately, only vaguely resembles the intention in the mind of the leader who initiates an action. The initiator, indeed, will be only vaguely aware of all of the many contexts that must be considered by the organism as a whole.

This then results in the creation of an entity that has a behavior, sure enough, but that behavior is not that of the individual who, in any one instance, actually carries it out. He or she is carrying out instructions, after all, not all of which he or she agrees with. Nor that of the individual who initiated it—who could not foresee precisely what would happen in the “process” along the way.

Partial consciousness of what is going on is present in every member of this artificial life—but no one person can see the whole entirely as it is. This is also true of all those who deal with this entity as its constituency. Not to be forgotten: the person in charge is always just a human being with limited talents and insight. And even if the talent is high, the insight deep, and the arrangements excellent, the very fact that a collective is at work will diminish all of these positives as they are ground away by the resistant medium of the many and of the other. My working premise is that we must have collectives, but we should not expect them to behave like people do—although individuals do make them up. A frequent reminder of this comes when I hear a charming recorded voice say to me: “Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Fairly often I come across the notion that in some ways collectives are superior to the individual; the idea seems to appeal to one kind of modern thought. Most recently I saw this view applied to insects and to bird swarms. It lies at the root of sociobiology, the creation of Edward O. Wilson: “The organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA,” as he said. From him, by one remove, we get “the selfish gene”; that’s Richard Dawkins. I first became aware of this tendency in the context of artificial intelligence, specifically reading Douglas Hofstadter’s best-known book many years ago, Gödel, Escher, Bach. Mind you, the book was a pleasurable experience! The ultimate roots of this mode, of this belief, I think, lie in Neo-Darwinism, the notion of “emergence,” the idea that complexity itself creates the reality—or at least the illusion—of consciousness. Materialism needs this idea as an explanatory principle. The alternative to it, that genuine agents might actually exist—and owe their existence to something other than matter or energy or both—is far simpler but, if held, produces a dualism which the advanced modern mind finds unacceptable.

Dualism has certain aspects that make the world much more intelligible—first because it makes room for meaning, not least the meaning of suffering. We can see suffering arising from the tension between an agency and aspects of this material dimension that cloud its vision and delimit its scope of action. It makes room for letting us explore reasons for our being here, for undergoing all manner of hardships—and how that could have come about. Materialist monism, forced to cough up some kind of explanation, can’t do much more than say that Shit happens—but whether we think it shit or not is an altogether subjective reaction arising from our history, internal arrangements, and the roll of the dice of probability.

This introduction is a bit too long for what I want to address—namely just an aspect of this subject. It is the notion that collectives have a kind of reality at least analogous to that of an individual human being and that, therefore, they can be held responsible. We are so used to this tenuous theory that we don’t even notice the problem when we ourselves speak of the Right or the Left, the Financial Sector, the U.S.A., Al Qaida, fundamentalists, or the media. Occasionally, rarely, we hear this notion assaulted. The most recent example of that is the notion that corporations are persons and therefore entitled to exercise political speech. Now there, finally, quite a few people want to draw the line—and I find myself sighing in relief. For a while I was half-convinced that Edward Wilson had turned out to be right. In his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he predicted that in one hundred years humanity will have evolved to a form no longer recognizably human—and I was convinced that I must one of those people who have been Left Behind.

The problem, of course, is that it’s very handy to use generic references and to commit anthropomorphism especially when referring to human institutions. Made up of humans—must be a human being. Writ large. Now my premise, already stated in a post a day or so ago, is that collectives are not. Not human. If you accept the modernist view, they could arguably be considered human. We are—yet we’re not really, not if our organism is just a convenient vehicle for DNA and our thoughts are ultimately reducible to coalitions of neurons engaged in Darwinian competition. Arguably, using the modern conception, we can’t effectively see the U.S. of A. because we’re too small. But we see as through a glass darkly. But the U.S. of A. can clearly see China—and hear its roaring threats much better than we can. I can hear you, but any one of your neurons is, as it were, just a bit challenged, shall we say?

If we accept the old-fashioned, traditional, dualist view, what we really see is that aggregates of people are just that—aggregates of people. They have no mind; they just display behavior. To understand that behavior we’d have to understand, over extensive periods, the behavior and motivations of each and every individual that makes them up. And that’s not handy at all. Indeed these collective entities, lacking a core self, as we do not, are distinctly inferior to any individual human, even the most humble among us. No one person actually controls any collective, even the very small ones. It is handy, of course, to pinpoint some leader by name—especially if that leader has a detectable influence on the total behavior of the collective.

The dualist view, I think, is correct—but if consciously realized, it keeps you sober and humble. The big dudes out there, however human-like they seem to be, are just vast lumbering and ultimately stupid beasts projected by our minds. We might as well get mad at the forest or hope for rescue from the ocean.

For more on Sociobiology, see this earlier post.

One More...

Fall produces colors while Spring produces splendor. I take too many pictures and spend too much time later staring at them on a screen. Enough. One more, this one, to mark the end of Daylight Savings time...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Collective Progress? Afraid Not.

The short span of lives and the brute fact that it takes decades to reach maturity—longer yet to achieve something like wisdom—suggest the reason why genuine progress eludes us. The signs of effective maturity are wide and comprehensive knowledge, concomitantly an extensive time-horizon looking forward and back, and an empathic view of other people well beyond the first three circles of family, tribe, and nation. The will to express that empathy in action must also be present. It’s a major effort—and much dependent on good luck—to achieve anything approaching that kind of maturity. Narrow, pragmatic knowledge, a short time-horizon, a competitive view of the other (“We must compete with China or else”—the last such good advice), and a willingness to engage in preemptive violence produce the cycles of history, the same-old, same-old. To be sure you have to age a bit to recognize that the newest wonder is the same-old. Meanwhile there is also some good news. This realm is quite wonderfully suited to develop individuals so that they do advance. The hard knocks—in combination with our innate gifts—will yield that result. In general, however, it’s the old Wheel of Karma going round and round. Hearing this infuriates some people; thus they demonstrate my premise; but later they too might learn.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Couldn’t Stop Myself

In his blog (here) for November 4, 2010, Gilleland published a brief Goethe poem, the Wanderer’s Night-Song, with eight translations into English. Many of these are quite superb, but none attempts a strict translation matching the tiny poem’s meter and rhyme scheme. This sort of thing is irresistible for me—especially if the item is short. Thus I will here reproduce the original German and my translation. It too lacks in some ways. Peaks and leaves? Not quite the rhyme I’d like—if you can even speak of rhyme. In the next to the last line, could is used for rhyme, but Goethe’s meaning is can.

This sort of thing will be pleasing, alas, only to those who speak both languages well. German is in many ways closer to its ancient origins and uses fewer Latin-rooted words. This makes the language, in the hands of poets, more crisp and parsimonious. Goethe’s poem uses 24 words and a mere 116 characters. Mine uses 33 words and 136 characters. All the translators use more words and characters than Goethe. Longfellow beats me—31 words and 135 letters. But there goes a poet of first rank. And he does not follow Goethe’s meter—and rhymes breath with rest. Believe me, I know how that must have irritated him.

The link above is not exact because Gilleland does not make it easy to access individual posts. Nor does he permit comments, or I might have sent this to him as a comment. So, instead…

Goethe’s Poem:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch,
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

My Translation:

Above all mountain peaks
It’s still,
In all the trees’ leaves
You feel nil,
Nary a sigh.
Silent the little birds in the wood.
Wait! Soon you too could
Rest for a while.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Double-Edged Brevity

It is when I struggle to be brief that I become obscure.
     [Horace, Odes]
Brevity carries Shakespeare’s weighty imprimatur in that famous saying of his in Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Wit is one of those curious words. Webster’s still tenaciously clings to the word’s traditional meaning (Mind, Memory) at least in the ranking of its definitions. It gives us today’s common understanding of that word—as humor—only in 3b of its definitions, and then only in paraphrase: “the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse.”

Along the way, usually in doctor’s waiting rooms—no, actually, usually a few hours after the visit—I became aware of another aspect of brevity. Brevity is light. It has no gravitas. It flies away. You still encounter in waiting rooms The Reader’s Digest, one of the milestones heading to the sound byte, and there’s no better way to while away the tedium than by reading its various featured pages of jokes. They amuse. They’re always brief, one or two lines or one or two brief paragraphs only—just enough to tease you in one direction, to commit you to one line of thought—only to jerk the carpet out from under you by shifting the meaning of words or the situations described to another equally acceptable meaning. Then the mental energy you gathered up getting to the punch line is suddenly released in a laugh or a chuckle. And that’s the witty way—to amuse. But while making mental notes to “remember this one,” the next joke immediately follows, tempting the eye. And later, getting home, ready to tell the good ones to the family, I find that they have fled my mind, one and all. Some few people have a talent for remembering jokes. Then in turn they become walking pages of the Digest. What they tend to forget, however, is that they’ve already told that one multiple times already over the years…

Jokes are clear enough or they fall flat. But brevity in other contexts has the problem that Horace identified. They may be rendered memorably enough, but represent such extreme compressions of meaning as to be obscure. And herein lies one of virtues or vices (take your choice) of sound bytes and of slogans. They’re short enough to remember easily—but they hide so many facts in two or three words that they compel the agreement of people who, if they knew the facts and issues laid out in detail, would start to wonder and to shake their heads.

Brevity is best in an introduction or a summary to a more complete presentation of the issues. The brief summary then serves as an aid to memory of all those details that should be kept in mind. And brevity, of course, is ideal, indeed indispensible, in jokes. When brevity is lacking in that sphere, we start thinking of shaggy dogs.

All this came to mind when, this morning, I wrote the following pair of sentence in an e-mail. Mind you, the text simply rolled out of my fingers—and only after I was done did I realize that I’d said something witty. What such a snippet hides will occupy contemporary historians for years—or not—all depending how things actually develop. Here is that pair of sentences:
The ultimate meaning of this election is that a huge wedge has been driven right though the middle of the GOP. Unless the spilled tea dries white on all those starched shirts, the Republicans will be rent from within.

And the Winner Is...

The winner is Jon Stewart. The best commentary on the election that just was—and the best prescription for what ought now to follow—comes from a mere comedian. I’m referring to the Rally for Sanity that took place on the Mall in Washington, DC on October 30. Herewith two links. The first, this one, holds the text of John Stewart’s remarks as reported by Rolling Stones; throw-back to the dark ages that I am, I like text; it's easier to absorb the meaning. The second, this one, is a YouTube visual of the same speech. Either one is well worth the few minutes required to absorb Stewart's message. (Hat tip to Monique, who sent me these links.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


By way of background to what follows, I wondered this morning jotting a diary entry how I would view this election day if I were thirty-five rather that double that number plus. To check on this I looked back to 1971, the year when I was that age. Nixon was President and Vietnamization was then in full swing. Vietnamization? The word stopped me for a minute before memories stirred. Oh, yes. There had been that disastrous North Vietnamese offensive, back in 1968—the Tet. It shook the U.S. Government enough so that Nixon launched Vietnamization as a consequence. The word meant that Vietnamese, rather than U.S. forces, should take over the war effort there. We’d engage in training them. Ah, perspective. When a war begins to fail, turn it over to the locals. We’d learned to do that for the first time ever in the Vietnam War. I don’t recall Europeanization ending either of two world wars, nor Koreanization during Truman’s “police action,” so called, that came later.

No elections took place in 1971, so I checked back to 1970. In the midterm elections of that year, the Democrats gained nine seats in the House and lost one in the Senate. Before the elections they’d dominated both houses of Congress; after it, they still did. The GOP gain of a seat in the Senate was the first sign of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Did Democratic victories signal Nixon’s doom in 1972? They did not. The Southern Strategy came of age two years later, and Nixon won by a landslide. He carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia; the U.S. map was a uniform red.

Still, it was a different sort of time, at least as I recall it. Neither government nor public had as yet become as sharply divided in ideology. We were active in space. Apollo 14, the third successful lunar mission, landed on the Moon in 1971. The Cold War was still a reality. Vietnam was issue One. Unknown to all but a handful of the 208 million inhabitants of the United States then, the first e-mail message ever sent passed between two computers that were part of the Internet’s precursor, the ARPA-NET.

After a while, staring at screens, I came to the conclusion that, at thirty-five, I was very actively engaged in the world, then living in Washington, DC and by the hour that my diary jottings were taking place today I would have been in very thick traffic making my way downtown. World and current affairs were much more in the background then for me, forced out of view by things to mind and lists to work. I had virtually no time to contemplate the times. But the seeds of today, back then still the future, were already sprouting.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Allerheiligen and Allerseelen

In Catholic tradition the somber month of November begins with two holidays of remembrance, All Saints’ Day today and All Souls’ Day tomorrow. For me these holidays will always be Allerheiligen and Allerseelen, the names in German meaning exactly the same as their English equivalents, but with the word “day” understood rather than spoken—in German because the fortunes of war deposited my nuclear family in west-central Bavaria in 1945, in the town of Tirschenreuth. We lived there for several years in a cultural setting that in all ways except the minor (such as automobiles and electric light) might as well have been medieval. This was—perhaps even remains—a devoutly Catholic region where the religious life, the celebration of its holidays, indeed the whole rhythm of life was directly and powerfully governed by the liturgical calendar. If you rendered All Saints’ Day into ordinary, shall I call it secular, German, it would be Der Tag Aller Heiligen. Linguistically obsessed long before I knew it, the conjunction of all and saints and then of all and souls struck me as interesting and memorable later on after I’d mastered the language. And these words, therefore, have a strange reverberation in my memories.

When I mentioned All Saints’ Day Saturday by way of explaining the “hallowed eve” that comes before this feast, I dated its establishment to the thirteenth century—another rather subjective gesture. The feast’s origins, of course, go way, way back in time. But “thirteen” pleases and always has—and one could argue that All Saints’ Day reached its full definition in the reign of Pope Urban IV (1261-64). This pope, whose father was a shoemaker and hence came from the people rather than from the nobility, defined this day to be a celebration not only of recognized and canonized saints but also of those individuals who died without these public acts but had achieved sainthood in the eyes of God. Nice touch, that, I think. With that All Saints’ reaches a kind of completion.

This feast, followed by All Souls’, reminds me that the remembering and honoring the ancestors is something deeply embedded in traditional culture, not simply in the Chinese. It pleases me that in our culture this remembrance reflects a kind of hierarchical structure. First we remember the highest among us, then all the rest of us, the departed who, together, somewhere invisibly, represent the Church Triumphant.

The image shown is by Fra Angelico and called Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven. It dates to 1428 or a little later. I have it from the German language Wikipedia here.