Friday, September 28, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Again

The last time I posted about Kurt Vonnegut, I was pretty bitchy, and I've been feeling guilty about that ( no, really!). (Photo at left from BBC obituary fir KV.) So I thought I would make amends by letting him say a few words for himself. From various quotes pages on the web, I gleaned the following. Obviously, this is very much a matter of taste, but all of these seem to me witty, wise, or at the very least just plain interesting. Here are some of my favorites. You can find plenty more with the help of the nice folks at Google:

  • Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile!
  • Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand
  • Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
  • We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.
  • There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.
  • Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.
  • If people think nature is their friend, then they sure don't need an enemy.
  • People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.
  • True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
  • Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?
  • I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please — a little less love, and a little more common decency."
Some authors are very quotable (Mencken, Mark Twain, Emerson), while others who may have great virtues of their own are not quotable in that way at all (Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman). (In the latter case, it may be that they write in paragraphs rather than sentences.) Vonnegut was definitely one of the quotable ones.

[He said a lot of other things that seem less original and interesting to me, about how we have wrecked the planet, stole it all from the Indians, ought to love everyone, etc., and I appreciate that he had to keep saying these things, tedious as they are, because he thought they are true. But I resolved to be positive this time, so I'll just shut up.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Who Should Speak on Campus?

Two furors involving speech at American universities erupted over the last couple of weeks. An invitation to to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to speak at Columbia University eventually resulted in a demonstration by people outside the hall. The demonstrators were objecting to his having been invited to speak. On the other coast, an offer of a one-year fellowship at the Hoover Institution for the Study of War, Revolution, and Peace to Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense resulted in a petition signed by 2,300 Stanford faculty and students, calling for the appointment to be revoked. If it is not revoked, it will require Rumsfeld to come to campus five times during the year and may involve his giving some lectures.

These protests raise some thorny issues. In a way, I guess I would deny that "who should speak on campus?" -- despite the title of this post -- is one of them. In a free society, this question can have no clear meaning. What campus? Who owns it? What is its mission? If the question is whether the Pope should speak, then if this is a Catholic institution the mere fact that he is the Pope is a good enough reason for him to speak here. At another sort of institution, it might not be. Even given the institution and its mission, the question of whether a given person should or should not be invited to speak may be purely a matter of taste and personal preference.

There is a closely related question, though, that I think does have a fairly clear meaning. It is: When, if ever, is it right to protest and demonstrate against someone's being invited to speak at all?

Note that such a protest is not a contribution to the dialog that would take place if they do come to campus. It is an attempt to prevent that dialog from occurring in the first place.

Now those who know me probably think they know what I am going to say next. No one should ever try to prevent any dialog from occurring. Well, not quite.

I can think of three legitimate reasons for inviting someone to come and speak on a university campus. (1) The speaker may possess information relevant to some topic worth discussing, and we may have reason to trust their claims to disclose such information to us. (2) They may possess superior abilities (due to superior reasoning abilities, theoretical knowledge, or moral character) to process this information and come up with new ideas about such a topic, ideas that are worth discussing. (3) Their statements may themselves be useful as data in our ongoing dialog on issues that are worth discussing.

In case (3) leaves you wondering what I am talking about, here is an example. Suppose we are profs in the department of criminology. We may want to invite Joe Blow, a confessed murderer, to come and address us. As a criminal, Mr. Blow's word might not be very trustworthy, but the mere fact that he says it may have some value. It may be distasteful, but studying people like him him is our job and by God we've got to do it.

It seems to me that only reason (3), the weakest of the three, clearly applies to these two speakers. One is a head of state and the other has long worked in close association with heads of state. As such, they are the sort of person who routinely takes the right of free speech away from the rest of us. Both have misled, deceived, or deliberately lied to the public in the past. In neither case does their word have clear and obvious value, except as data.

Do I want to say that neither should have been invited to speak? Well, I'm not entirely sure. I suppose the honest thing to say is that I am not completely without sympathy for the people who are objecting to their being invited to speak, in either case. And it would be pretty hard to feel sorry for either of these guys, in the event that they are denied access to any one academic forum. They've both had opportunities to express their views that are beyond your wildest dreams -- and while they were putting gags, handcuffs, and straightjackets on their fellow human beings.

On the other hand, I think the reasons the objectors give for their objections are often without much merit. At Stanford, Professor Philip Zimbardo, a distinguished psychologist, said that Rumsfeld should not have been invited on the grounds that he "created the conditions" that led to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Graib. "It is unacceptable" he said, "to have someone who represents the values that Rumsfeld has portrayed, in an academic setting."This is, to say the very best of it, just plain silly. The mere fact that someone did something wrong in the past does not mean that they should not take part in an academic discussion. And the idea that whether you should speak in an academic setting should depend on what "values" you have "portrayed" is about as pernicious a principle as one can easily imagine. It would mean that you have to pass a morality test before you can speak.

With somewhat greater plausibility, protesters at Columbia have said that Ahmedinejad should not have been invited because "he is a hatemonger." I don't think this quite makes it as a good reason either. That he is a hatemonger just means that his ideas are obnoxious and offensive in a certain sort of way. But ideas can be obnoxious or offensive and still be worth discussing. More important, shutting an idea out of the dialog, just because of what the idea is, is always a bad idea. Setting up a dialog that in principle will discuss any idea whatsoever is the best way we have of combating obnoxious ideas -- and of deciding which ones are obnoxious in the first place.

An Associated Press article poses the question of whether colleges should allow "extremists" to speak. To say that an idea is "extremist" only means that it is relatively far from the average, the typical, the ordinary. Understood in that way, the question answers itself, doesn't it?

I personally would not have protested against either of these speakers. But if I had been on the committee deciding whether to invite them ... I probably would have voted against both. In both cases, inviting him to speak looks too much like inviting a politician just because he is a politician. Is that a good enough reason to invite someone? If we were entomologists, which would be more informative: attending a lecture by a leading entomologist, or looking at one more bug?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut: One More Thing....

I'd like to add one more thing to my earlier post about Cat's Cradle. The first time I read it, what impressed me the most was the idea that believing lies can actually be a good thing (or at least less evil than believing the truth). This time around, something quite different stood out. The book's end-of-the-world scenario I found really, seriously disturbing. It quite literally gave me nightmares. It's not just that it presents a vivid, plausible story of the complete annihilation of all life on earth. It's the point of view behind it. Spending any amount of time between Kurt Vonnegut's ears, at least as we experience it in this book, is really not very pleasant. (On thing you might get out of the ice-9 fable is a bit of insight into what it would be like to seriously be in the grips of global climate catastrophism. Really believing that sort of thing, should you ever be able to do so, would not be fun.)

People have often pointed out that one thing that is remarkable about this book is that it laughs its way through the end of the world. That's true, but this is not a healing sort of laughter. The impression it creates, for me at least, is one of more or less pure nihilism. The book ends with a creepily Jonestown-like scene in which we find that Bokonon has urged his assembled followers to have "the decency to die," leading them to commit suicide by touching their mouths with crystals that turn their bodily fluids to solid ice-9.

Nihilism, said Nietzsche, is the radical denial of value. It is the pouty teenager's murmur that life sucks. Reading this book reminds me of another Nietzschean theme: how easily extreme forms of moralism, such as Christianity and the closely related idea of socialism (secular Christianity, you might call it), lead to nihilism. Vonnegut was of course no Christian, but he was apparently some sort of Trotskyite.

What is the connection, you wonder? Here is one way to look at it. If you are a real socialist or honest-to-God Christian, you believe in a moral standard to which human beings cannot possibly measure up. Love your neighbor as yourself. Share and share alike with everyone. Care about the whole planet instead of caring about your own self. Shun material gain as the root of all evil. Human beings are apparently hard-wired to not act this way.

Eventually, you will notice this. If you happen to be a genius, this realization might drive you to become a brilliant social satirist, like Vonnegut. But what will the resulting point of view be? You really have a choice. You can choose life and reject your "principles." Then of course you are no longer a hyper-moralizer, a Christian or socialist. On the other hand, you can keep your principles and decide that life sucks. There are two types of hyper-moralist: those who have made the life-sucks choice, and those who have not yet wised up to the fact that, by their principles, all of humanity stands condemned. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut clearly comes accross as the post-disillusion, frowner-at-everything sort of socialist.

Darn! I ended up sounding more negative about the book than I meant to. Let me repeat that I really do recommend it. I think I got something out of it that many deny can ever come out of a work of art: genuine enlightenment. Of course, it wasn't the sort of enlightenment that the author intended ... but that's what great books are like!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cat's Cradle: Here's One that's Not Overrated

A while back I seriously annoyed people with a post that claimed Heller's Catch-22 is the most overrated novel of the twentieth century. Today I thought I'd point out a beloved novel from the same era, similar in themes and tone, which I think is not overrated at all, but deserves its status as a classic. (Warning: not only does this post contain spoilers, but I will also say a couple of negative things about the book. I can't help myself!)

From about 1960 to 1963, I was a member of the Doubleday science fiction book club. When I joined up, I got an omnibus volume that included a reprint of Alfred Bester's then-recent The Stars My Destination. During the following years, the monthly selections included Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Glory Road, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Poul Anderson's Trader to the Stars, L. P. Hartley's sadly neglected little masterpiece, Facial Justice -- and perhaps most remarkable of all, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.

(Yes, it was a golden age. If there is anything nearly this interesting going on in scifi today, I would sure like to know about it. A glance at what the book club is offering today suggests that things have steeply fallen off.)

Reading this book as a teenager, I was dazzled. It made a strong impression on me intellectually. When I read it a second time last week, I still found it a brilliant piece of work.

It is a sort of rollicking satirical end of the world fantasy. It has to satirical foci. One centers on the imaginary religion of Bokononism. Bokonon, the founder of this religion, teaches that people ought to live in accordance with foma, which I guess I would translate as "expedient falsehoods." The point here seems to be that truth as a good is much overrated.

The other focus is political and centers on the fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker, "the father of the atom bomb." Just for the heck of it, as a sort of hobby, Hoenikker develops ice-9, a crystalline form of water which, if dropped into any ocean, lake or stream, will instantly transform all the water on earth so that its freezing point is 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit -- in other words, it will become solid. I think you can guess what happens.

Here the point is a very clever attack on the idea of pure research, the notion that knowledge as knowledge is an unqualified good, out of any relation to the needs of human life. At first Hoenikker is an appealing character. He says in his Nobel acceptance speech that he was just an eight-year-old boy dawdling on the way to school. He aimlessly follows the lead of his curiosity regardless of consequences. Long before his last discovery destroys the world, you realize that this cute old guy is an inhuman monster who should have been murdered in his crib.

I found this aspect of the book very convincing. Having been influenced by people like Plato and Aristotle, I have a certain tendency to lapse into thinking of knowledge and truth as context-free unlimited goods. This book is an effective cure for that error.

Having said that, I can't resist pointing out that Vonnegut seems clearly wrong on one point. He seems to think that the pure-research point of view is what created the atom bomb and, thereby, subjected humanity to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nowadays, every schoolboy knows that this is not true. "The Bomb" was invented by social idealists like Robert Oppenheimer, who hated Hitler and wanted to blow him to smithereens, not by Aristotelian seekers after pure theoria. In other words, it was created by people who resembled Kurt Vonnegut a lot more than they resembled Felix Hoenikker.

More later...

[Tip o' the sombrero here to Ruchira for her Second Glance post.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Bounty: The True Story

While traveling to San Francisco and back for the Liberty Fund* Ortega colloquium (lots of fun and I learned a lot -- thanks everybody!), I read The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking, 2003), by Caroline Alexander, who wrote the very successful book about Shackleton, The Endurance. It is of course Alexander's account of the most famous mutiny of them all.

I am very impressed. Aside from being a page-turning read (at least if like me you get all romantical about the Days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men), it's also interesting for being a straight up defense of Lieutenant Bligh (who at the time of the Bounty voyage was not yet a Captain). I notice that the review of the book in The New York Times contains the curious statement, "In The Bounty, Alexander doesn't set out overtly to reach a verdict on the mutiny itself." I can't figure out what the reviewer, Verlyn Klingenborg, meant by this. Alexander misses no opportunity to show that Bligh was blameless and Fletcher Christian was just plain wrong. If this isn't a verdict, I don't know what would be. And she is very convincing. She has gone back to the manuscript versions of the surviving logs and diaries of participants -- always a better source than accounts remembered and misremembered after the fact. It has the ring of truth, to say the least of it.

According to Alexander, the notion that Bligh was, by the standards of those days, a cruel disciplinarian addicted to the lash, is simply a myth: ''William Bligh had punished his crew with 229 lashes in the course of a voyage of 17 months to the South Pacific.'' Later, one of the Admirals who managed the court martial of the five mutineers who were brought back to Englaind administered 278 during the mere three and a half weeks of the preparations and aftermath of the trial.

As she tells the story, there was a serious problem with the voyage from the beginning. As every schoolboy knows, the purpose was to go to Tahiti, collect a huge number of breadfruit plants, and take them to Jamaica for transplantation. The admiralty seems never to have taken this trip very seriously. They saved money by refusing to promote Bligh to the rank of Captain for this, his first command, and they gave him an unusually small ship. The Bounty was actually purchased from a private company, which had been using it to ship coal. The superb full-size reproduction built for the not-too-bad (though absurdly inaccurate) 1962 movie was actually 20% more than full size. Worst of all, they refused to give him a detachment of marines to keep order on the ship.

The marines would have been reliably loyal to Bligh and would have had no function other than to use force if need be -- mainly against the crew. Bligh had discipline problems from the beginning, with many petty acts of disobedience or insolence. When they got to Tahiti, many of the men had to live on the island, to collect and take care of the plants. At least half of them pretty much went native, indulging in the then-new practice of tatooing and living in blissful sin with the beautiful and friendly native women. After more than five months on the island, Bligh wrenched the men from this literal paradise of bachelors. The ship's discipline problems predictably got worse. Lacking marines, Bligh foolishly relied on name-calling and fits of rage. Where is that son of a bitch?! Why you are a fool! Damn me if I don't make you sorry! You are a thief! Why damn your blood! Probably the one thing most often said of Bligh was that he did one thing or another "in a passion." Believe it or not, by all accounts the incident that precipitated the mutiny was a tongue-lashing administered when someone took some coconuts, in violation of explicit orders, from a pile of them on deck. Assembling the entire crew, he denounced them all as thieves. Just before dawn the next morning, Christian and an armed cohort seized the ship.

Bligh's real offense was not (by the standards of the day) physical cruelty so much as hurting people's feelings. It's a sort of cautionary fable for the politically correct world we live in today, isn't it?

Of course, as so often happens, different morals can be drawn. One conclusion that jumps out at me is that being thin-skinned can be a seriously bad vice. Because Christian was so upset at being called a thief, various domino-like chains of events were set off that eventually resulted in more than seventy deaths. The mutiny itself was bloodless, but Bligh and the loyalists were set adrift in an open boat, while the mutineers fled justice across the high seas. By the time the resulting hardships, drownings, murders, and executions had taken their toll, the effects of these emotional episodes were more or less horrific.

On the other side, it has to be said that the politically correct crowd has a point. To put the point in terms of Bligh's story... Another thing that was often said of Bligh, other than that he tended to fly into a passion at slight provocation, was that his passions always blew over quickly. He might scream at you one moment and compliment you minutes later. He may have felt that because he had forgotten his last fit of rage, others would of course do so as well. That was a mistake. A big one. Even among the loyalists who traveled over three thousand miles with Bligh in the Bounty's launch, there were probably one or two men who hated his guts. Like it or not, there are thin skinned people out there. Even tough eighteenth-century tars are capable of throwing their lives away over hurt feelings. It's a good idea to mind what you say, is the point.
* For reasons that it might be interesting to go into, I've always had a much better Liberty Fund experience than Ann Althouse.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On Hold

Classes are starting up here, plus I am about to leave for a Liberty Fund conference I am running in San Francisco on José Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses. That's him on the left. I like this picture because he is smiling. You don't see too many great, dead philosophers smiling. (I guess Harvey Pekar is right: "When you're dead, it robs life of many pleasures.") Ortega's writings smile as well, despite their grim-sounding titles. Reading Ortega is something like reading Nietzsche, only in Spanish and not insane.

I’m busy and distracted, and won’t be able to post again until next week in all likelihood. In fact, I've been more or less crazy for several days, which explains my lack of comment-responding, comment-moderation, etc. My apologies to one and all.

Thanks for stopping by -- I hope we meet up when I get back!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Completely Rebuild New Orleans? Sorry, No.

The second anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is upon us, and around the nation conversations about what to do about New Orleans are flaming up again. Needless to say, the blogosphere is no exception. Donald Pittenger over at 2 Blowhards has has an interesting post about this. Following Steve Chapman, he suggests and interesting analogy: Another awful hurricane devastated the then-major port city of Galveston Texas in 1900. In effect, the responsible parties decided that, gee, I guess it was a mistake to have a big port city, with a lot of expensive, delicate artifacts perched on a sandspit in a hurricane zone. Houston would be a better choice, as it is well protected from that sort of devastation. And today Houston, and not Galveston, is the major port in the area. New Orleans is like Galveston, Pittenger and Chapman are saying: there shouldn't be a big city with nearly half a million working stiffs like you and me living there, perched between a huge lake and a river, and large areas of it below sea level, in a hurricane zone. Baton Rouge and, again, Houston, are better choices.

I am a long time-time admirer of New Orleans, and of Creole and Cajun cuisine and music. I have been a fan of Joe and Cleoma Falcon, the lamented Clifton Chenier, and Breaux Brothers for decades. I have been known to stuff a Thanksgiving Day turkey with jambalaya. When Paul Prodhomme turned to healthy eating with A Fork in the Road, I turned with him. But I heartily agree with Chapman on this one.

However, a commenter on Donald's post suggests a competing analogy: So you want to abandon New Orleans. Would you abandon San Francisco, what with being in an earthquake zone and all?

This is a tough question for me. San Francisco and New Orleans are my two favorite American cities (Baltimore coming in third). But it seems to me that Galveston is the better analogy. Much of the city of New Orleans was simply a mistake: it only exists because of a government-built levee system which, we now know, government is not competent to maintain and operate properly. San Francisco can probably be maintained in existence by people who for one reason or another are willing to spend their own money doing so. Yes, I know, like the rest of America, San Francisco is on the dole. Probably, lots of government money goes into protecting it from earthquakes. This inevitably means money being mis-allocated (trans.: wasted). But the point is that San Francisco can probably survive on the resources of people who find it profitable or in some other way worthwhile to pay for it. In other words, protecting the whole thing is worth the cost.

New Orleans is an artistic and cultural treasure, and I am very attached to it. But completely rebuilding New Orleans would mean some of us indulging our sentimental attachments and aesthetic tastes at other people's expense. It can only be done by forcing the taxpayers to repair all the bad effects of this government-caused mistake. That's what makes New Orleans a special case. Further, as I understand it, the parts that are below sea-level tend to be the parts that were built after the formation of the modern welfare state -- ie., they aren't the parts that we get all aesthetic about. The old, "core" part of New Oreans is 48% at sea level or above.

Let's rebuild the parts of the city that make it great -- Tulane and the French Quarter, among others -- and move on. On to Baton Rouge, on to Houston! Some of the parts of the city that are just a place to live should be allowed to go the way of the Stutz Bearcat, the brontosaurus, and the liberal Republican.

Do I want to "let the hurricanes win"? I don't want the bad guys to win, but hurricanes are not bad guys. "Millions for defense but not once cent for tribute" is not a rational way to think about the weather.